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World News

Maliki is block in Iraq coalition merger talks

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Disagreement over a second term for Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is snarling merger talks between his coalition and a fellow Shi’ite bloc with close ties to Iran, sources close to the talks said on Tuesday.

Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (center R) meets with a delegation from the U.S. congress, in Baghdad, March 28, 2010. REUTERS/Iraqi Government/Handout

Maliki’s State of Law (SOL) coalition is negotiating a possible union with the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), which includes anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, to form the largest bloc in Iraq’s next parliament. The Sadrists’ strong election showing makes Sadr a potential kingmaker.

An alliance between the two major Shi’ite parties could push former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s cross-sectarian Iraqiya coalition, the top vote-getter in Iraq’s March 7 election, to the sidelines. That could anger many Sunnis who voted for Allawi and deepen Iraq’s sectarian divide.

Sadrist sources have said Maliki, who launched a crackdown on Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia in 2008, cannot be the merged bloc’s nominee for prime minister.

“There is a big worry among us because SOL is insisting on nominating Maliki as prime minister,” said an INA candidate who is close to the talks and asked not to be named.

The Iraqiya bloc headed by the secularist Allawi took 91 seats in the election to 89 for Maliki’s second-placed State of Law.

The close race promised weeks of difficult and potentially divisive talks to form a government following a vote Iraqis hoped would stabilize their country after years of war.

Iraq’s minority Sunni Muslims were marginalized when the Shi’ite majority rose to power after the 2003 U.S. invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.

The main obstacle the two coalitions are facing in their talks is how they will choose the next prime minister, officials said. INA wants them to reach a political accord on a nominee, while State of Law said the issue should be decided by a vote.

“They insist on picking the next prime minister according to the results of a vote. This is unacceptable because they have 89 votes and their candidate will win even if they nominate a toy,” the INA source said.

SOL officials said they had shown flexibility on the issue of Maliki but he was still their only candidate.

“The prime minister is not insisting on being the obligatory candidate before the negotiations start but he is the sole candidate of the SOL,” said Ali al-Alaq, a leader of Maliki’s Dawa Party.

A merger of State of Law and INA would take the two blocs close to the 163 seats needed to form a government.

Maliki made concessions to the Sadrists in recent days, including an offer to release their detainees in Iraqi and American jails.

MIGRATION TO IRAN

Major players in Iraqi politics have trooped to Shi’ite neighbor Iran in recent days, leading to concerns that Tehran was trying to influence the formation of a government.

Representatives of State of Law, Kurdish officials, Sadrists and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), a party formed in exile in Iran and the other main component of INA, traveled to Iran on Friday to meet Sadr, according to INA sources.

In an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp (BBC), Allawi said it was clear that Iran was trying to stop him from becoming Iraq’s prime minister.

“Iran is interfering quite heavily and this is worrying,” Allawi told the BBC.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a senior member of ISCI, were also in Tehran on Friday, the day Iraq announced vote results.

Asked about Iran’s role, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill told reporters in Washington: “I don’t think the Iraqi people would stand for a government that is not homemade.”

Speaking via videoconference, he added: “We have not seen any sign that he (Sadr) wants to play a direct role in the political process here.”

Iraqiya criticized the rush to Iran and said it might produce alliances based on sectarian affiliations, not political ones. But the group said it too would send a delegation to Iran.

The Kurdish coalition grouping the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdish Democratic Party has appealed results of 48 polling places in Nineveh and Kirkuk provinces, according to the appeal document obtained by Reuters.

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