U.S. hoping Ramadan's end provides impetus for forming Iraqi government

Muslims across the Middle East react to a Florida pastor's plan to burn Korans on September 11th.
By Karen DeYoung and Janine Zacharia Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 10, 2010; 10:29 PM

Obama administration officials expressed hope on Friday that the end of Islam's holy month of Ramadan will mark a turning point in Iraq's political gridlock and will push its squabbling leaders toward the compromises necessary to form a government.

In the six months since Iraqi elections, U.S. officials have promoted a number of ways to distribute power among the leading political groups and repeatedly predicted imminent success. But no agreement has materialized.

The latest U.S.-backed option calls for a coalition government between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law party and the Iraqiya party led by Ayad Allawi. Maliki would remain the head of government, his powers reduced.

Under one of several variations of the power-sharing proposal, Iraq's Political Council for National Security, a largely powerless body formed of political leaders and cabinet ministers, would be given authority to veto government decisions, particularly in areas involving national security and the economy, an administration official said. Iraqiya would hold prominent positions in the multi-party council, perhaps including Allawi at its head, as well as several cabinet portfolios.

"The object of the exercise is to create more positions that balance the prime minister having all the power and provide the ability for a coalition government to come together," the official said.

The proposal is among several shifting ideas under discussion in Baghdad recently. But Iraqi officials said that their U.S. counterparts have been pushing the power-sharing arrangement and that Vice President Biden promoted it when he visited Iraq last week.

A U.S. official in Baghdad, who like others interviewed requested anonymity to discuss diplomatically sensitive issues, denied that the administration favors a particular scenario and said its goal is only "to see a government set up quickly that is inclusive, representative and accountable to the Iraqi people."

While maintaining an outward image of calm, "the Americans are starting to pull their hair out" at the delays, one Iraqi official said. The administration has emphasized Iraq's smooth functioning under Maliki's caretaker government, but it is keenly aware of the lack of progress on a range of pressing issues.

The deadlock began when Allawi's party, a Sunni- and secular-backed coalition, won the largest number of seats - two more than Maliki's Shiite bloc - but fell far short of a majority in the 325-member parliament. Talks among various configurations of political groups have since begun and ended without resolution.

Maliki has resisted surrendering any power, and Allawi thinks his electoral lead gives him the right to form the next government. The Kurdish alliance, with 43 seats, has been sitting on the fence and parties in Iraq's other major Shiite group, the religious Iraqi National Alliance, are unwilling to join Maliki's bloc as long as he remains prime minister. Last week, the INA put forth its candidate for the job, current vice president Adel Abdul-Mahdi.

One possibility, one Iraqi official said, "is that the two Shia blocs somehow manage to find a working solution between them and reach some consensus on who should be the prime minister." But the INA "is adamant against Maliki, and the Maliki bloc is adamant that he is the only person." Agreement, the official said, would require "a lot of external pressure, mainly from Iran."

The only other option, Iraqi and U.S. officials agreed, is a meeting of the minds between Allawi and the INA, considered unlikely.

"In a perfect world, with the numbers, this would work," the Iraqi official said of a Maliki-Allawi coalition.

deyoungk@washpost.com zachariaj@washpost.com

Zacharia reported from Baghdad.

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