- Associated Press - Thursday, July 8, 2010

BAGHDAD | Two days of attacks targeting hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims in the Iraqi capital have killed almost 70 people, casting a spotlight Thursday on Iraq’s security challenges as militants focus on stoking sectarian tensions that have hindered efforts to form a new government.

The violence linked to the anniversary of the death of a revered Shiite holy man bears the hallmark of Sunni insurgents in Iraq. While it pales in comparison to attacks in previous years, the bloodshed comes at a crucial time for the country as officials jostle for power while struggling to ensure security and stability as U.S. forces begin their return home.

Despite a force of some 200,000 Iraqi soldiers and police officers that fanned out along the pilgrims’ route in Baghdad to ensure security, insurgents were still able to carry out a string of attacks, including at least two by suicide bombers.

“Those who benefit from such acts are the enemies of humanity, the enemies of democracy, the enemies of openness,” Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Thursday in Beirut, where he was paying his respects following the death of a leading Shiite cleric.

The Iraqi premier is locked in a power struggle for his post with Ayad Allawi, the secular politician who served as Iraq’s first prime minister after the 2003 invasion and whose Sunni-backed coalition narrowly won the March 7 election.

With the July 14 constitutionally mandated deadline to select a new government approaching, the political uncertainty in Iraq is providing the militants with greater opportunity to strike.

The deadlock between Mr. al-Maliki’s State of Law party and Mr. Allawi’s Iraqiya party prompted a visit last week by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. A compromise appears remote, but Iraqi and U.S. officials have tried to quell concerns.

“The talks between all the blocs that participated in the elections and won are continuing on a daily basis,” Mr. al-Maliki said.

His reference to all the blocs that “won” appears to indicate he is not about to relinquish his post without significant concessions.

But Mr. al-Maliki is in a tight spot. Along with finding common ground between the two parties, he must appease powerful Iranian-backed Shiite parties - like those headed by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the Iraqi National Alliance (INA).

A State of Law official involved in the negotiations told the Associated Press that the INA had informed them that they rejected Mr. al-Maliki’s candidacy for a second term.

Both Mr. al-Maliki and Mr. Allawi also must win the support of the influential Kurds, who hold the presidency and seek greater autonomy in Iraq’s oil-rich north. A statement released Thursday by President Jalal Talabani’s office said Kurdish provincial leaders agreed that his retention of the post was a “main demand” for their participation in forming of a new government.

“It is one of the great ironies of the Iraq war that the primary threat to Iraqi security and stability is now the lack of unity among its democratically elected politicians, not its insurgents or its sectarian and ethnic tensions,” Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq expert with the Center for Strategic and International Relations, said in a report Thursday.