BAGHDAD Nuri al-Maliki looks likely to be nominated by his Shi'ite coalition to lead Iraq's government for a second term despite increasing acrimony among his partners and threats by a Sunni-backed bloc to boycott his government.
Officials from the National Alliance, a merger of Maliki's State of Law coalition and the Iran-friendly Iraqi National Alliance (INA), coming out of a closed-door meeting on Monday said they were leaning toward Maliki.
His rival, Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a member of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), a main faction in INA, was seen as losing out.
But even if most of his partners support him, Maliki has to convince others to work with him to form a government, analysts said.
"I think it's very likely that if Maliki is named as the (alliance's) candidate for the premiership he will end up leading Iraq's next government," said Middle East analyst David Bender of Eurasia Group.
"However, deciding who should lead the next government is only part of the challenge. Maliki will now have to assemble a cabinet, which will be a highly contentious process as different political factions look to guarantee their influence and gain greater access to patronage networks."
On Monday the National Alliance missed its own deadline to choose a nominee for prime minister and said it would continue talks.
The two Shi'ite-led coalitions have said they intend to merge in parliament, combining State of Law's 89 seats and INA's 70 to form a single bloc that would be just four seats short of the 163 needed for a governing majority.
But months of talks have failed to produce a candidate for prime minister, a necessary step toward ending a stalemate that has left Iraq without a new government 6-1/2 months after an inconclusive election in March.
To muddy matters more, Iraqiya, a cross-sectarian alliance led by former prime minister Iyad Allawi, which won the most seats in the 325-seat parliament with strong support from minority Sunnis, said it would not join any government headed by Maliki.
MALIKI THE LIKELY CHOICE
National Alliance officials coming out of Monday's closed-door meeting said they were leaning toward Maliki rather than his rival, Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a member of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), a main faction in INA.
But disagreements between the politically savvy ISCI and its former armed wing, the Badr Organization, on whether or not to support Maliki, raised doubts about the unity of the Shi'ite bloc, and uncertainty about Maliki's chances.
Badr, which controls around 11 seats in parliament attended the meeting, while ISCI stayed away.
"It all depends on the size of the pan-Shi'ite bloc that supports (Maliki). On Monday, there were signs of ISCI defecting. If they really do this then Maliki is less certain to become prime minister," said www.historiae.org analyst Reidar Visser.
"If Maliki emerges as the prime minister nominee within the framework of a sectarian Shi'ite alliance, the chances of an Iraqiya boycott are considerable, since they also have strong misgivings about him at the personal level."
The impasse has shown how deep the divides remain and raised fears that widespread bloodshed that almost ripped Iraq apart in 2006-07 could resume if one of its communities is excluded from government or denied what it views as a fair share of power.
"Let them do whatever they want. We said clearly that we will only take part in an inclusive government that includes State of Law, the Kurdish bloc, and Iraqiya," said a defiant Abdul-Mahdi. "We believe these terms are not available."
Politicians from the INA said threats from Iraqiya and ISCI are just pressure tactics and Maliki's nomination is likely, even if not all the Shi'ite alliance agrees.
"All indications suggest that Maliki is the person who will be nominated as the sole candidate for the National Alliance. Currently, there are no more obstacles," said Khalid al-Asadi, a member of Maliki's State of Law.
But Irayiqa's opposition and the rising resistance lining up against Maliki from within would make forming a government a tough task and hard to digest by other factions inside Iraq, or by its neighbors.
Iraqi analyst Ibrahim al-Sumaidaie said if Maliki excluded Iraqiya and ISCI, whose leader Ammar al-Hakim is seen as one of the more moderate Shi'ite politicians despite his close ties to Iran, he risks the wrath of powerful countries.
"Who would accept Maliki today? America? Turkey? No one would accept Maliki and his party anymore," Sumaidaie said.
(Additional reporting and writing by Rania El Gamal; Editing by Jim Loney and Louise Ireland)