Saturday, October 16, 2010; 2:46 AM
BAGHDAD - Iraq's Kurds have once again emerged as kingmakers in this nation's complex political game, as incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki strives to get the support of a majority of the country's lawmakers to stay in power.
For the moment, the Kurds appear to be leaning toward backing Maliki, a Shiite. But they have yet to endorse him publicly and are also negotiating with his rivals, trying to leverage their power in parliament to win key government positions and promises that would resolve Kurdish and Arab land disputes in the north.
The Kurds have long been a strong U.S. ally in Iraq, and U.S. officials, who have a good deal of influence over the sizable ethnic minority, are hopeful that Kurds will use their political heft to force a broader, more inclusive government between the country's largest political blocs. U.S. officials worry that if Iraq forms a government that is not seen as representative of its ethnic and religious mix, that will eat away at security gains and hurt their future dealings in the country.
Following inconclusive elections on March 7, Iraqis have lived in political limbo for more than seven months.But Maliki took a significant step toward becoming Iraq's next premier this month when he won the support of the Sadrists, followers of fiery Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who staunchly oppose the U.S. presence here. Maliki still needs more support to achieve the simple majority in parliament that would allow him to form the country's next government.
Others from within the Shiite coalition that nominated Maliki have said they will not vote for him or his cabinet, fearing that another four years of Maliki rule will further marginalize them politically.
Instead, these smaller groups of Shiites hope to join with Maliki's biggest rival, secular Shiite Ayad Allawi, whose political bloc won the most seats in Iraq's parliament by a slim margin, and offer an alternate candidate. Allawi and his allies are also trying to woo Kurdish support, but are having less success.
"The Kurds are the determining factor now," said a leading Kurdish official on the condition of anonymity so he could be candid.
Maliki's State of Law bloc and the Kurds have met several times, and Maliki has agreed to some Kurdish demands, according to officials from both groups. But as they attempt to play one side against the other to force concessions, Kurdish leaders are just beginning negotiations with Allawi.
Members of Allawi's largely Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc have suggested that they would be open to the prime minister job going to Adil Abdul Mahdi of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a Shiite and longtime U.S. favorite.Under that power-sharing scenario, Iraqiya would give up its claim to the job of prime minister, and Allawi would receive another federal position with comparable powers.
A government led by Abdul Mahdi and Allawi may now be the preference of U.S. officials alarmed by the Sadrist backing of Maliki and his souring relationship with Iraqiya.
"If this happens, the battle lines will be drawn," the Kurdish official said. "They will each have about the same numbers and they will need us."
A decision by the Kurds, who have 57 seats in Iraq's 325-member parliament, about which contender to support would push forward a government formation process that has been dogged by accusations of fraud and heated arguments over who has the right to form the government, with politicians flying to neighboring countries to seek regional support.
The Kurds have played the role of kingmaker before. In 2006, it was their parliamentary backing that allowed the Shiite coalition and its nominee, Maliki, to take power. Now, as Kurdish officials say they are still considering their options, the process could spill into next year.
They have drafted a list of 19 demands, one of which is allowing the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan in the north of Iraq to administer its own oil fields. They also seek the settlement of property claims and a referendum on the status of disputed territories that both Arabs and Kurds lay claim to, which could be a flashpoint for violence. And they have demanded that both Iraqiya and the Shiite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, who opposed Maliki's nomination, participate in the next government.
The Kurds have little trust for their potential allies. One of the 19 demands states that if the Kurds were to pull out of the government, a new government would have to form.
The top four elected political blocs - Maliki's State of Law, Allawi's Iraqiya, the Shiite Iraqi National Alliance and the Kurdish alliance - have not met as a group since the election. U.S. officials have been passing messages between State of Law and Iraqiya to try to forge an agreement, Iraqi officials said. The president of Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, is advocating a meeting between all four blocs.
But an end to the impasse is far from guaranteed.
"It's difficult for anyone to decide what time this crisis will end," said Sami Shorish, a member of the Kurdish negotiation team. "We don't want to announce who we support and then realize it's not the right choice for us. It will put an end to our role."