Iraq rivals meet on government, no sign of breakthrough

BAGHDAD Sat Jun 12, 2010 2:02pm EDT

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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The leaders of Iraq's two largest political blocs held talks on Saturday for the first time since an inconclusive March election, but there was no sign of a breakthrough on the country's next government.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Iyad Allawi, leader of the winning Sunni-backed Iraqiya alliance, met under tight security at the office of the Council of Ministers, after weeks of sniping over who had the right to try to form the government.

Iraq's new parliament is to sit for the first time on Monday.

Allawi's cross-sectarian Iraqiya coalition narrowly won the March 7 vote with the heavy backing of Iraq's once-dominant Sunni minority.

But he faces being sidelined by a Shi'ite tie-up of Maliki's second-placed State of Law and the third-placed Iraqi National Alliance, which includes firebrand anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Allawi, a secular Shi'ite and former prime minister, has warned Iraq risks a return to full-blown sectarian warfare if Iraqiya is denied the right to lead the government.

But some of his Sunni allies fear they risk being locked out of a governing coalition completely if Allawi continues to insist on heading the government. The new Shi'ite alliance is still four seats short of a majority.

"This meeting opens the door for another meeting between the two sides and that meeting will further close the distance between them," said State of law official Ali al-Dabbagh, who is also the spokesman of Maliki's outgoing government.

"It's not fair for people to expect that one meeting will solve all problems," he said on state-run Iraqiya television, adding that all sides agreed it was important for Allawi's Iraqiya to be included in the next government in some way.

Analysts caution it could yet be weeks or months before a government is in place, meaning Iraq might be effectively rudderless as the U.S. military ends combat operations in August ahead of a full withdrawal next year.

U.S. forces plan to cut troop numbers from just under 90,000 to 50,000 by September 1.

Washington says it will press ahead despite the political deadlock, with overall violence down sharply from the height of sectarian bloodshed in 2006-07.

The past two months, however, have seen a rise in casualties from insurgent attacks as militants try to exploit the power vacuum.

(Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Michael Christie)

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