- The Washington Times - Monday, November 8, 2010

Four deadly explosions rocked Iraq Monday as political leaders hustled to seal a power-sharing agreement in time for the convening of the country’s Parliament.

The blasts, a suicide bomb and three car bombs, killed at least 28 people — mostly Iranian pilgrims — in the Shiite cities of Basra, Najaf and Karbala. Monday’s attacks came on the heels of another series of coordinated attacks on Shiite targets last week that killed about 90 people and an Islamist siege of an Iraqi church that claimed 58 lives.

Meanwhile, in the northern Kurdish city of Irbil, top figures from Iraq’s major parties met behind closed doors Monday in a bid to break the political deadlock that has gripped the country for eight months. The three-day talks begin as the Iraqi Parliament prepares to resume work Thursday, following an order by the country’s Supreme Court.

Iraq held elections for its 325-member national Parliament on March 7. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya coalition emerged victorious with 91 seats, narrowly edging out the 89 seats won by current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law party and setting off a furious battle for the premiership.

Mr. al-Maliki has been well-positioned since last month, when Muqtada al-Sadr — the radical Shiite cleric whose followers won 39 of the 70 seats captured by the Iranian-backed Iraqi National Alliance — dropped his opposition to another term for the incumbent.

Mr. al-Maliki reportedly also has received the backing of the main Kurdish bloc, which won 43 seats in the elections. Just 163 seats are needed to form a majority government, though leaders in Iraq and around the world have said repeatedly that Iraq’s delicate ethnic balance and troubled postwar history make it imperative that none of the country’s three major sects — the Shiite-Arab majority and the Sunni-Arab and Kurdish minorities — is excluded.

Reidar Visser, an Iraq specialist at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, said it is unlikely Mr. al-Maliki could satisfy Iraqiya’s demands before Thursday.

“It’s really hard to see any solution in the short term between Maliki and Allawi because they’re very far apart in what they’re demanding,” he said, noting that Iraqiya wanted an empowered version of the presidency that would require Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani to step down and for Iraqis to change the constitution.

While Mr. Allawi is himself a secular Shiite, the vast majority of the bloc’s members and supporters are Sunnis, igniting fears that Iraqiya’s exclusion could reverse the progress made since Sunni leaders turned away from the postwar insurgency.

The most likely outcome at the moment, Mr. Visser said, is a Shiite-Kurdish coalition with the participation of couple of smaller Sunni parties.

“The other scenario,” he said, “is that the Kurds decide that if Iraqiya is not going, then they won’t go either, but the signs over the last few days are that the Kurds are increasingly willing to go with Maliki. They will want it to look as if they tried, but they now seem eager to move ahead because Maliki apparently has given them a lot of concessions.”

Brian Katulis, a Middle East analyst at the Center for American Progress, cautioned that a deal with Iraqiya would not be a panacea.

The violence and continuing failure to resolve core disputes, he said, “punctures the surface-level analyses falling under the banner, ‘the surge worked.’”

Iraq today remains stuck in a dangerous limbo,” he said. “Certainly the overall security situation is improved, but the whole basket of political and economic development issues remain in a troubling state of affairs.”