By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 4, 2010; 10:27 PM
BAGHDAD - Key supporters of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and representatives of his biggest rival are discussing a power-sharing deal that could break the nearly seven-month political impasse in Iraq and deliver the kind of inclusive government the United States has been advocating.
Officials from the Sunni-backed slate that won more seats than any other party in Iraq's March 7 parliamentary elections said Monday that they would probably lift their boycott of Maliki and support the controversial Shiite leader for another term if their candidate becomes president and the powers of that traditionally ceremonial job are expanded.
The potential deal would end a tense period that has polarized the nation along sectarian and ethnic lines as political blocs traded accusations and violence remained steady in Iraq's streets.
With Maliki and secular Shiite Ayad Allawi sharing power, the government would represent both Iraq's Sunni and Shiite Arab votes. Much of the support for Allawi's faction came from Iraq's Sunni Arabs.
Worried that political deadlock could eat away at security gains made in the past two years, the United States has pushed for an arrangement between Maliki and Allawi's Iraqiya bloc that would leave Maliki as prime minister but put Allawi into another powerful role in Iraq's government.
Vice President Biden has called all the major players in Iraq in recent days, according to a senior Obama administration official, and reemphasized U.S. support for "a process, not a specific candidate or outcome," that results in an "inclusive government."
"We believe . . . all four large coalitions must play a role," and continue to urge them to do so, the official said. The administration thinks that Maliki "still has to reach out to the Kurds, at a minimum," and that they will "only play ball if Iraqiya is in and there is a meaningful" shift of powers from the office of prime minister. "Maliki's very positive statements in recent days about inclusivity and reconciliation seem to acknowledge this reality," he said.
Iraqiya had yet to officially meet with members of Maliki's State of Law bloc, Shiite and Iraqiya legislators said Monday. But Maliki seemed to be open to the proposal, one Shiite legislator from within the National Alliance said. The two sides expect to discuss the arrangement after Allawi's planned return Tuesday from a visit to Cairo.
"I think Maliki will agree with this because he wants to guarantee [Iraqiya's] 91 votes,'' the legislator with knowledge of the possible deal said.
The agreement was proposed Sunday night during a telephone conversation between Allawi and Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the leader of a large faction that threw its weight behind Maliki on Friday, said a senior official inside the largely Sunni-backed bloc of Iraqiya. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
The proposal from Sadr, who is studying in Iran, followed meetings between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, two of the most influential regional players in Iraq's government formation process. The proposed deal would likely be well received in neighboring Iran, where officials have been backing Maliki.
"Moqtada said it won't keep the alliance with Maliki unless Dr. Allawi is the president with more authorities,'' the official said. "I think this is acceptable.''
Sadrist officials declined to speak publicly about the proposed agreement but acknowledged that they thought it was a viable option.
On Sunday, Maliki called for Iraqiya's participation in his potential government.
As part of the proposed deal, the role of president would be broadened to include foreign policy, defense and energy sectors, said a senior official inside the Iraqiya bloc.
The Sadrists boosted Maliki's chances of retaining the premiership by backing his nomination by a coalition of Shiite blocs known as the National Alliance. The move alarmed U.S. officials who had discouraged a substantive Sadrist role in the new government.
But for Maliki, the move posed a dilemma. He cannot form a new government without the Sadrist backing. To retain that support, he may be forced to give up some of his power. The Sadrist support also comes with a time limit.
"He has one month," said Mohammed al-Darraji, a Sadrist legislator. "If he can't fulfill his commitment to attract other parties, then we have to go for another choice.''
Members of Maliki's bloc would not discuss or acknowledge a potential deal. They also warned that they would not agree to such a step without Kurdish approval.
"There are signs from Iraqiya and some members in the bloc that they want to be partners in the government,'' said Ali al-Alaq, a legislator from Maliki's bloc who said he had no knowledge of the deal. "Such an important decision needs to be reviewed, especially because the Kurds want the presidency and they are our real partners.''
To win the premiership, Maliki must get more than half of parliament's 325 votes. He has about 132 declared backers and needs about 32 more.
A deal between Allawi and Maliki could rob the Kurdish alliance - which holds about 57 seats - of the powerful kingmaker role it now plays in the the government formation process. But the Kurds have pushed for a broader coalition that includes Iraqiya and probably would still play an important role in the new government.
For now, the Kurds are demanding Iraq's presidency. But officials within the Kurdish Alliance may be flexible. Some consider the post of speaker of the parliament more important to Kurdish national aspirations. The parliament holds the key to the solution to a historic land dispute between Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens in the north.
"I wouldn't discount it," one Kurdish official said of a tentative deal between Allawi and Maliki. "But it's still very complicated and too early to tell."
Maliki is a divisive figure. Security has improved under his leadership, but he has been accused of centralizing power, circumventing security ministries, and using the nation's security forces for his own purposes.
Maliki has been doing everything in his power to secure a second term. He released hundreds of Sadrists from prison over the last two months, and Kurdish officials say he has given them the most concrete assurances that he will respond to their demands.
Kurdish conditions for a potential partnership include a referendum to solve a territorial dispute between Arabs and Kurds and hammering out the relationship between Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.
But some Sunni Arabs from within Iraqiya still strongly objected to a second term for Maliki on Monday, because of what they see as politically motivated arrests against their ranks.
"Maliki would be the end of democracy in this country," said Atheel al-Nujaifi, the Sunni governor of Nineveh province and a member of Iraqiya.
Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.