Shiite bloc suspends talks, undermining Maliki's chances to remain Iraq's leader

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 2, 2010; A07

BAGHDAD -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's chances of keeping his job suffered a setback Sunday when a coalition of Shiite parties that appeared to represent his best hope of staying in office broke off talks with his slate.

The move did not resolve a dispute among Iraqi politicians over who among the members of parliament elected March 7 will lead the next government. But it appeared to leave Maliki in a weaker position as his former political allies renewed negotiations with the Sunni-backed coalition led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi.

Both Maliki and Allawi claim the right to form the new government, citing conflicting interpretations of the constitution. Neither has found enough allies in parliament to secure the simple majority required to appoint the next prime minister.

U.S. officials have watched the stalemate with growing consternation as they prepare for their own transition.

The United States will soon send a new ambassador and a new commanding general to Baghdad as the U.S. troop withdrawal accelerates. The U.S. military will draw down to roughly 50,000 troops by the end of the month.

American officials had hoped to make the change of guard after a new Iraqi government was seated, thinking an experienced U.S. team would be better positioned to handle any unrest and violence triggered by the Iraqi transition of power.

In coming days, the White House will dispatch a team to Baghdad to assist with the transition and assess U.S. policy regarding Iraq's stagnant government formation process, American and Iraqi officials said.

Separately, a few American experts on Iraqi politics who played key roles during the 2007 U.S. troop surge are temporarily returning to Baghdad to advise U.S. officials.

Brett McGurk, an Iraq adviser to then-President George W. Bush who was among the key negotiators of a 2008 bilateral agreement, recently arrived in Baghdad.

Sadi Othman, who was Gen. David H. Petraeus's main interlocutor with Iraqi politicians during the surge, has been asked to return to work for the incoming U.S. commander, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III. Ali Khedery, who was an adviser to then-U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, will work temporarily for the next ambassador, James F. Jeffrey.

Sunday's political developments left Iraqi and American officials wondering how Maliki would respond.

"He can do unexpected things that are not even in his best interest when he's cornered," said an American official who advises the Iraqi government, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be more candid.

Officials from the Iraqi National Alliance, the coalition of religious Shiite parties that suspended talks with Maliki, said they wanted to pick someone else for the top job.

"We found that our negotiations with State of Law weren't serious," said Bahaa al-Aaraji, a member of parliament, referring to Maliki's slate.

Aaraji said the religious parties would open a new round of talks with their counterparts in Allawi's bloc and a Kurdish coalition in coming days. He said they would resume talks with Maliki's slate only if he agrees to nominate a substitute candidate for prime minister.

Ezzat Shahbandar, a lawmaker from Maliki's slate, played down the significance of the suspended talks, saying the religious parties were "putting themselves out of the equation."

The political bickering has angered residents as government services deteriorate and attacks kill scores of civilians each month.

At least 396 civilians died in attacks in July, according to Iraqi government officials who compile data from records kept by the Interior, Defense and Health ministries.

At least 680 civilians were wounded in attacks, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the government does not release the data publicly. The July figures also show that 50 Iraqi soldiers and 89 police officers were killed.

The U.S. military disputed the accuracy of the figures, saying far fewer people were killed in July.

Special correspondents Aziz Alwan and Jinan Hussein contributed to this report.

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