- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 24, 2010

BAGHDAD (AP) — The Iraqi prime minister’s efforts to forge a governing Shi’ite alliance inched closer Wednesday after he met for the first time with members of a party led by an influential anti-American cleric who has been one of the prime minister’s staunchest critics.

The State of Law coalition, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has reached out to the Iran-backed religious Iraqi National Alliance, or INA, since the March 7 parliamentary elections.

But the meeting late Tuesday with a two-member delegation from the Sadrist Trend, the movement of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, marked the first meeting with Sadrists in particular.

While exact results of the election have not been released yet, the Sadrists are expected to make up the largest portion of the INA to win parliamentary seats.

Ali al-Adeeb, a candidate on Mr. al-Maliki’s State of Law list, confirmed Tuesday’s meeting. So did a senior Sadrist official, Karrar al-Khafaji, who said the negotiations with Mr. al-Maliki were “positive” and the two sides have “common ties.”

While it is too soon to say whether the meeting will lead to more solid cooperation between Mr. al-Maliki and the Sadrists — longtime enemies — both sides would have something to gain from working together. Such overtures serve as a warning to Mr. al-Maliki’s main rival for the prime minister’s job, former Prime Minster Ayad Allawi, that he cannot hope for Sadrist support in his bid for the premiership.

The Sadrists, who have gone from being an anti-American militia fighting on the streets to a powerful political organization, would like to turn their newfound power into Cabinet seats and more government control.

Mr. al-Khafaji said that “no details, just general guidelines” were discussed Tuesday. He added that one of the “most difficult” issues in the talks was the post of the future prime minister.

Mr. al-Maliki is unpalatable to many Sadrists because of his crackdown on their militiamen in the southern city of Basra and in their eastern Baghdad stronghold. Mr. al-Maliki also has refused to release al-Sadr followers from Iraqi jails.

A Sadrist official in the holy city of Najaf, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, played down the Tuesday talks, saying nothing has been achieved.

“We are still firm in our opinion that there should be another candidate for the premiership instead of Nouri al-Maliki,” the official said. “The Sadrists have suffered during his term. They were subjected to arrests and experienced a lot of injustice, and that illustrates our position.”

The complete results of Iraqi elections are to be released Friday. But 95 percent of the votes counted so far show Mr. al-Maliki and his supporters in a dead heat with a coalition led by Mr. Allawi, a secular Shi’ite who has attracted a strong following among Iraq’s Sunni community for his anti-Iran rhetoric.

Mr. al-Maliki also made moves to shore up his Kurdish support, meeting for the first time since the election with President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd. Speaking briefly to reporters in front of Mr. Talabani’s Baghdad office, both leaders said they had discussed efforts to bring about a new government, though Mr. al-Maliki appeared to stop short of endorsing a firm alliance with the president. Neither man took questions.

“We are old allies that have fought together against dictatorship in order to establish the democratic, federal and independent Iraq,” Mr. Talabani said. “God willing, our efforts will continue to form a new coalition government.”

The Kurds are traditional kingmakers in putting together Iraq’s governments and have been wooed heavily. Within days of the election, Mr. Allawi traveled to the Kurdish autonomous region to meet with its leader, President Massoud Barzani.

None of the blocs that competed in the election will take a majority of the seats in the new 325-member assembly, making an alliance between two or more parties inevitable, along with the prospect of extended haggling among various factions. The last government took nearly six months to form.

Hundreds of al-Maliki supporters rallied Wednesday in the southern cities of Basra, Nasiriyah and Karbala in support of his push for a manual recount of the ballots amid the claims of fraud and vote-rigging. The independent electoral commission so far has rejected doing this.

In Baghdad, gunmen killed five Iraqi soldiers in a drive-by shooting on a checkpoint in Radwaniya, a Sunni suburb near the airport.

While overall violence has dropped considerably in Iraq since 2008, policemen and soldiers often are attacked by insurgents.

Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub, Sinan Salaheddin and Mazin Yahya contributed to this report.

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