BAGHDAD – Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Friday took a major step toward a second term by securing the support of a Shiite Muslim political bloc that includes the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
The reversal by al-Sadr’s bloc – which until recently had strongly opposed returning al-Maliki to power – leaves al-Maliki just shy of a parliamentary majority and figures to end nearly seven months of political deadlock that the U.S. military has blamed for a recent uptick in insurgent attacks.
While Obama administration officials have been pushing Iraqi political leaders to end the stalemate, and have privately said that an al-Maliki victory would help bring about a peaceful transfer of power, the critical role played by al-Sadr brings a decidedly mixed outcome for Washington. Al-Sadr’s followers waged some of the most brutal attacks against U.S. forces during the Iraqi civil war and have close ties to Iran.
Al-Maliki, whose mostly Shiite State of Law party finished a close second in the March elections with 89 parliamentary seats, would control an additional 70 seats with the support of the other Shiite parties, of which al-Sadr’s is the largest. That would leave al-Maliki four seats shy of the 163-seat majority needed to form a government.
That support is likely to come from the Kurdish political bloc, which won 43 seats and now is poised to play the role of kingmaker. Experts say Kurdish leaders will put pressure on al-Maliki to speed up the resolution of the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which Kurds claim is rightfully theirs.
Mohsin Sadoon, a member of the Kurdish coalition, called the decision “a great and important step” and said that talks with the al-Maliki alliance would proceed quickly.
“It was the issue that delayed the formation of the government for a long time,” Sadoon said. “We will start the negotiations of forming the government with the alliance by presenting our demands and political projects very soon.”
While an al-Maliki victory had seemed a likely outcome, the announcement appeared to be the death blow to the secular Iraqiya coalition led by former Shiite prime minister Ayad Allawi. Allawi’s bloc won 91 parliamentary seats, a narrow plurality, but couldn’t gain the backing of the Shiite parties.
Much deal-making remains to be done, however, and not all Shiite parties were pleased with the bloc’s decision. Two prominent groups – the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, including al-Maliki’s chief rival, Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, and the Fadhila party – skipped Friday’s meeting.
Observers said the opposition to al-Maliki could lead minority Sunnis and some leading Shiites to boycott an al-Maliki-led government, making it difficult for him to form a Cabinet.