Iraqi political leaders scramble ahead of mandated parliament session

By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; 6:37 PM

BAGHDAD - Iraq's four main political blocs met for just the second time Tuesday in an effort to end a months-long political impasse ahead of a looming parliamentary deadline.

On the eve of a court-mandated session of parliament Thursday, substantial obstacles remain to the formation of a new government, as the Kurds press their claim to the presidency and as Iraqiya, the Sunni-backed bloc that won the most votes in the March 7 elections, struggles to limit the next prime minister's power and secure the presidency for itself.

The United States is increasing pressure on the Kurds to yield to Iraqiya on the presidency, worried that Iraqiya, which is headed by secular Shiite Ayad Allawi, will not be properly represented in the next government, effectively sidelining Iraq's Sunni minority. Such an outcome could increase instability ahead of the U.S. military withdrawal set for the end of 2011.

"We will either be in the opposition or out of the political process - and this will be dangerous" for the process, said Shaker al-Khatab, an Iraqiya legislator.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, is trying to garner the backing he needs to keep his post without ceding any power. Maliki emerged as the likeliest candidate for the top job in the new government when he secured the support of the Sadrists, a populist Shiite political movement opposed to the U.S. presence here.

Iraqiya has been offered the post of parliament speaker in a Maliki-led government.

"It's Iraqiya's decision if they want to participate or not," said Ali al-Alaq, a member of Maliki's State of Law bloc, adding that parliament will convene Thursday even if Iraqiya balks.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) met with Kurdish officials during a visit to Iraq this week, asking them to drop their claim to the presidency. President Obama and Vice President Biden made the same request in recent phone calls, said Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman.

"The pressure on the Kurds is increasing," Othman said. "I don't think the blocs can reach an agreement in time."

The government formation process has been slowed by allegations of electoral fraud, constitutional disagreements and continuing violence. Last week, more than 118 people were killed in bomb attacks and a brutal takeover of a Baghdad church.

Anger and frustration are growing daily as politicians jockey for positions in the next government. Before parliament convenes, leaders are trying to come up with a package deal allocating the three highest posts: prime minister, president and speaker. When parliament meets, it must choose a speaker and two deputies and then name a president, who will in turn direct the leader of the coalition with the greatest number of seats to form a government.

Allawi and Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, another Iraqiya member, missed Tuesday's meeting, sending delegates instead. Iraqiya denied an intent to snub and hinted that it would push for Thursday's parliamentary session to be delayed to deal with the disagreements between Maliki's and Allawi's blocs.

"I think probably . . . the parliament meeting will be postponed," said Falah al-Naqib, a prominent Iraqiya figure. "We cannot proceed without a package deal."

Special correspondent Ali al-Qeisi contributed to this report.

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