BAGHDAD One of Iraq's main Shi'ite political blocs has rejected Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's claim to a second term and halted coalition talks until his party nominates a new candidate, politicians said.
Maliki's party said it was standing by the premier.
The decision by the Iraqi National Alliance (INA) to break off negotiations was a major setback in forming a new government as U.S. troops are planning to cut back military operations in Iraq more than seven years after ousting Saddam Hussein.
"All parties of the INA have agreed that the obstacle is the insistence of nominating Maliki," Qusay al-Suhail, a senior member of the Sadrists political movement, a main INA faction, told Reuters Sunday.
"That is why we demanded an alternative ... The INA's decision is unanimous."
Almost five months after Iraq held a parliamentary election meant to set it on a course toward stability after years of war, sanctions and insurgency, Iraqis are no closer to knowing who their next prime minister will be.
Maliki's State of Law bloc, which came second in the March 7 vote, and the third-place INA, announced their merger in June under a new name, National Alliance. Together the Shi'ite coalition has 159 seats in the new 325-seat parliament, four short of a majority.
But the prime minister's post remains a stumbling bloc and talks to form a government have gone nowhere because of discord over Maliki's demand for a second term.
VIOLENCE ON THE RISE
Hajim al-Hassani, a spokesman for State of Law, said on Sunday the coalition was standing by its merger with INA, but would also continue to back Maliki for the nomination because the prime minister had "gained the trust of the Iraqi people" in the election.
Haidar al-Ebadi, a senior lawmaker with State of Law, called the INA decision "unfortunate."
"This is a wrong attempt to pressure (us), while the Iraqi people, voters and the country, are waiting for deep talks between the political blocs to reach a decision, not to stop those talks," he said.
But Hameed Mualla, a member of INA, said his party's public rejection of Maliki was a bid to speed up an agreement.
"Failure to submit an alternative candidate would make the INA enter talks more seriously with the other blocs," he said.
Many politicians have said it could be mid-September or later before a government is formed. Washington is due to call a formal halt to combat operations in Iraq and cut troop strength to 50,000 as of August 31.
The long delay has raised fears of a renewed insurgency. Sectarian violence exploded after Iraq's 2005 parliamentary election, when politicians took more than five months to negotiate a new government.
Government figures released Saturday showed the number of civilians killed by bomb blasts and other violence in Iraq nearly doubled in July, to 396 from 204 in June.
Saturday, Ahmed Chalabi, a veteran politician and member of the INA, said the Shi'ite merger is sticking together but left the door open for talks with other political blocs.
"We stress our adherence to the National Alliance as the biggest parliamentary bloc," Chalabi told a news conference.
"We declare our openness to the political blocs that are willing to show flexibility and work with them ... to resolve the crisis of forming a national partnership government."
(Writing by Rania El Gamal and Jim Loney; Editing by Jon Hemming)