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Maliki gets Shiite nod to head new Iraqi government

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki got the backing of Iraq's main Shiite bloc today, leaving him within four seats of the majority needed to form a new government.

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Much dealmaking remains to be done, however, and not even all Shiite parties were pleased with the bloc's decision, signaling that the 70-seat bloc could erode slightly. Two prominent groups – the Fadhila party and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, including Maliki's chief rival, vice president Adel Abdul-Mahdi – skipped Friday's meeting.

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Observers said that the opposition to Maliki could lead minority Sunnis and some leading Shiites to boycott a Maliki-led government, making it difficult for him to form a cabinet.

"We were hoping to reach an accord by clear procedures and criteria," Basim Sherif, a prominent Fadhila member, told al Jazeera. "But what happened today was bilateral agreements according to interests…. So we walked out of the meeting."

US calls for rival groups to be included

US officials called on Maliki's coalition to continue negotiations and bring rival groups into the government.

"We believe all four winning blocs must play a role in the coalition government, including Iraqiya and the Kurdistan Alliance," said a spokesman for the US Embassy in Baghdad, David J. Ranz.

Memories of the March election, which observers hailed as peaceful and transparent, quickly melted over a long, hot summer during which Iraqis cursed their political elites for dithering and collecting large salaries while ordinary citizens suffered through power outages, shortages of basic services, and ongoing violence.

The instability worsened in September, following the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, with an upsurge in rocket and mortar attacks, many of them aimed at the Green Zone, the heavily fortified area of Baghdad that houses the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi government buildings. The US military counted 21 so-called indirect fire attacks in the 30 days ending Sept. 29, compared with 13 in the previous 30 days.

US military commanders said that both Sunni and Shiite insurgent groups were using the political stalemate as an excuse for violence.

"I think you could make an argument that once this government forms, you'll see the level of violence that's been occurring over the last couple of months wane," Brig. Gen. Ralph Baker, commander of US military forces in Baghdad, said earlier this week. "There'll be less of a perception that there's an opportunity that exists to drive a wedge in between."

(Issa and Hammoudi are McClatchy special correspondents. Shashank Bengali and special correspondent Mohammed al Dulaimy contributed to this report.)