Iraq election breakthrough?

A popular anti-American cleric may have thrown his weight behind incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to retain his post, but Iraq's election deadlock hasn't been broken yet.

By , Correspondent

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    Supporters of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr hold a demonstration following Friday prayers in Kufa, 100 miles south of Baghdad, Iraq, Oct. 1.
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A flurry of proposals has led to considerable movement in Iraq’s seven-month political deadlock but neither Iraqi nor US officials are counting on an imminent announcement ending Iraq’s epic struggle to form a government.

As the country lurched into the history books with one of the longest delays in government formation ever after holding elections, followers of hard-line Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr announced they had withdrawn their opposition to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and would back him for a second term.

The turn-around by the Sadr movement, the biggest single bloc in parliament, brings Mr. Maliki only four seats away from the majority he needs to form a coalition. But the other major requirements for a workable government – inclusion of the main Sunni parties and of the Kurds – have yet to be met.

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“There are some ideas out there to bring the leaders together to have them talk through how best to achieve an inclusive government,” the US Ambassador to Iraq, James Jeffrey, told reporters on Tuesday. He said Iraqi as well as US officials believe an inclusive government needs to include Ayad Allawi, leader of the largely secular al-Iraqiya group backed by many Sunnis, and the Kurds.

Jeffrey, speaking on the sidelines of a US trade mission to Iraq, said while there appeared to have been "considerable movement" over the past two weeks he could not predict when a government could be formed.

Ego and ambition

Seven months after Iraqis went to the polls a tumultuous mix of ethnic and sectarian aspirations along with personal egos and ambition have kept political leaders from forming a coalition.

A leading member of the Iraqiya bloc, Ezz al-Deen al-Dawla, says the parties are still at "square one." He predicts it could take more than two months longer to agree on a government.

“All of the parties with no exceptions are hungering for power – I’m hesitant to talk to people or the press because I feel so embarrassed for the people who voted for me,” says Mr. al-Dawla.

The Washington Post on Tuesday reported that Maliki’s State of Law bloc and Iraqiya are discussing a deal in which Allawi would become president but with greater powers than the largely ceremonial post normally carries. Al-Dawla denies such a proposal is being floated but the group often gives conflicting messages.

“As far as I know as a member of the negotiating committee, there is not any kind of communications with the State of Law coalition,” says the Iraqiya lawmaker. “In fact there is an agreement between the members of Iraqi not to contact the State of Law.”

Forming a government was initially delayed after Maliki challenged results that showed him behind al-Iraqiya and demanded a recount. Widespread opposition to Maliki, even among his Shiite coalition, has presented further obstacles. Although he remains popular in the street, the Shiite prime minister is accused by his former political allies of acting like a dictator – taking decisions such as sending the Iraqi Army into Basra – without consultation.

Deadlock

The deadlock has continued even though key decisions such as revenue-sharing, the future of disputed territories, and passing a budget must be addressed by a new parliament. At the UN General Assembly in New York last month, Iraq was told that it would not get any support to help it lift sanctions in place since the 1990s until a government is formed.

The Kurdish alliance, whose seats in parliament could play the decisive role in determining who becomes prime minister, has said it will back whichever party makes the strongest guarantees to protect Kurdish interests and has been negotiating with all of them.

US officials have said they would support Maliki as head of a diverse government but the prospects of the Sadrists as a major player in a purely Shiite coalition is a nightmare scenario for the United States. Before announcing a ceasefire in 2004, Sadr led his paramilitary forces – the Mehdi Army - in the biggest challenge to US troops since Saddam was toppled.

Jeffrey said the US embassy had been assured that reports the Sadrists had made a deal to back Maliki in exchange for several government ministries and other concessions, including prisoner releases, were untrue. In the clearest public comments yet though of US unease over the prospect of the Sadrists taking a key role in government, he warned they could jeopardize the democratic process.

“The problem that we see and that others see here is that there is not clarity in whether the Sadrist movement is a political movement or it is an armed militia which carries out political objectives through violent means,” Mr. Jeffrey told reporters.

“We would urge our Iraqi friends to be cautious in the kind of positions that they leave open to anyone who has not made clear their position…any group that cannot distinguish between peaceful political processes and violent intimidation, violent attacks and the threat of violence is a problematic partner for the democratic process,” he said.

Laith Hammoudi contributed reporting.

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