By Leila Fadel
Sunday, May 23, 2010; A11
BAGHDAD -- Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned Saturday that rushing the formation of the new government could reignite sectarian violence.
"If the government is formed in the wrong way, if it is formed by extremist Sunnis, who are present, or by extremist Shiites, who are also present, the sectarian violence will return and will wipe out everything we have already achieved," Maliki said in an interview. "I say we should not bow to the pressures of time and make a big mistake."
The results of the March 7 parliamentary elections have not been ratified, and it remains unclear who will be Iraq's next leader. Maliki has emerged as the most likely next prime minister following a tentative deal with another Shiite political bloc. But hundreds of people have been killed in an uptick in violence since the vote, and analysts and Western officials worry that a prolonged political vacuum could further destabilize the nation.
Maliki lost the popular vote to former prime minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite, and a partial recount has reaffirmed Allawi's lead. But Maliki said Saturday that he was confident that he would retain his post. He said he believed that a tentative deal between his State of Law bloc and the Shiite Iraqi National Alliance would hold and make that bloc the largest in the next parliament. The Iraqi National Alliance includes a faction led by fiery cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, which said last week that it would no longer veto Maliki's rule.
If the alliance falls through, Maliki said he would try to ally with the Kurds, and parts of both the Shiite alliance and Allawi's bloc. If that fails, he said he would try to join with Allawi's Sunni-backed Iraqiya coalition to form the government.
Maliki said that Sunni representation in key government positions will be crucial to Iraq's stability, and in all three scenarios he would form an inclusive government with Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. "It's a must that we reach an understanding with Iraqiya," he said.
The majority of seat winners in the Iraqiya bloc are Sunni Arabs, and without their presence in the next government Sunnis will feel disenfranchised.
Allawi said that Iraqiya should get to form the next government because it received the largest number of seats in the elections.
Maliki said he was still pained by what he saw as the manipulation of results in the elections. But he was confident that he would become Iraq's next leader. Even if Allawi would not support Maliki, some of the mostly Sunni bloc will, he said.
"The State of Law is the safety valve for the political process," Maliki said, referring to the charges that he ordered offensives against both Shiite and Sunni militants during his rule.
Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey D. Feltman recently said that the top contenders for prime minister should consider accepting other positions to speed up the process. But Maliki said it was not America's place to get involved.
"These are not foreign recipes," Maliki said. "Why should we go to Plan B? The arena is open to anyone who can manage it. The political process is going along, we shall go to Parliament and whoever has the largest bloc will form the government."
He warned that U.S. pressure could be detrimental.
"The demand by the Americans for a faster pace would be at the expense of the quality of government. The American interests will be harmed as well," he said. "This is not like sitting in a café for tea and exchanging posts. I'm not one who sells and trades the interests of the people."
He also called on Arab countries to refrain from interfering in Iraqi affairs and backing specific blocs. Last week, Saudi Arabia's former intelligence chief, Prince Turki al-Faisal, was quoted as saying that Maliki was trying to "hijack" the elections and "deny the people their legitimately elected government." Faisal warned of "potential civil war.
"We ask the friends of Iraq to stop the interference of the region," he said. "Otherwise, Iraq will not be stable."
Maliki said he was disappointed that the March 7 balloting showed that the country is still divided along sectarian lines.
"It seems that the transition from the sectarian situation to a state based on the notion of citizenship still needs time," he said.