- Associated Press - Friday, October 1, 2010

BAGHDAD (AP) — Powerful Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr backed Iraq’s prime minister to retain power Friday in a move that could speed an end to the country’s seven-month political impasse but could also hand Mr. al-Sadr’s anti-American bloc considerable influence in the next government.

The decision marks a significant boost for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led coalition toward securing enough parliament seats to form a new government. For months, the Sadrists have demanded Mr. al-Maliki be replaced.

Iraq has been in political limbo since March elections, which a Sunni-backed bloc won, but so narrowly that it did not have the majority needed to oust Mr. al-Maliki.

An official from al-Sadr’s bloc, Nassar al-Rubaie, told a press conference the next step is to “open dialogue with the other winning political groups to form the government.”

But the political jockeying is far from done.

Though other Shi’ite parties are likely to back him, Mr. al-Maliki still is short of the parliamentary majority needed to form a government and will likely have to open talks with Kurdish leaders to put him over the top. Then it could be weeks — or longer — to put together a cabinet that’s acceptable to Iraq’s rival groups.

U.S. military officials say the power vacuum is encouraging a spike in attacks by Sunni insurgents trying to humiliate authorities and tap into public frustration. The uncertainties also have hindered Iraq’s efforts to lure badly needed foreign investment and get domestic reconstruction plans off the drawing boards.

Mr. al-Sadr’s move apparently sets aside past animosity with al-Maliki for a chance to gain a greater voice in a possible new government. Mr. al-Sadr — who has been in self-imposed exile in Iran since 2007 — has denounced al-Maliki’s government for its close ties to Washington and a joint security pact that allows U.S. military presence through at least the end of next year.

In 2008, a joint U.S.-Iraqi offensive broke the grip of Mr. al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia in its Baghdad stronghold.

The United States has not publicly supported any candidate for prime minister and has said the new government must reflect all of Iraq’s various groups. Earlier this week, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. made a round of calls to Iraqi leaders including Mr. al-Maliki.

But the prospect of Mr. al-Sadr and his allies with a hand in power is likely to unsettle Washington.

Mr. al-Sadr is staunchly opposes the U.S. presence in Iraq and his militia poses some of the strongest resistance after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. During the height of Iraq’s sectarian bloodshed, Mr. al-Sadr loyalists were blamed for taking part in targeted killings of Sunnis and firing rockets and mortars on Baghdad’s protected Green Zone.

There are also worries about how much influence Iran now carries over Mr. al-Sadr after offering him haven for more than three years.

Mr. al-Sadr’s group has given no public details of their about-face to support Mr. al-Maliki, or about what they seek if he leads the next government. A statement by Mr. al-Sadr on his website said only that pressures are “normal” in political negotiations and that all parties have to show the “policy of give and take.”

Mr. al-Sadr’s bloc won 39 seats in March elections. Even that — combined with al-Maliki’s coalition — would fall short of the 163 seats needed for a majority in the 325-seat parliament.

Kurdish leaders, who are widely expected to throw their weight behind al-Maliki if they sense he can hold on to his post, had no immediate comment.

The Kurds, who control a semiautonomous northern enclave, have generally remained on the sidelines in the political maneuvering since March elections, which were narrowly won by Sunni-supported bloc led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

Mr. Allawi has insisted he must lead the next government, but has been unable to draw in enough political partners for a parliamentary majority.

A senior lawmaker with Mr. Allawi’s bloc, Osama al-Nujaifi, said an al-Sadr alliance with the government “will definitely complicate the situation.”

Iraq’s majority Shi’ites have dominated Iraq’s political and security leadership since after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 — which ended decades of Sunni privileges under Saddam Hussein. Underscoring the dangers, a roadside bomb exploded and killed at least three people, including two members of an anti-insurgent militia, and wounded seven others in a mostly Sunni district of southern Baghdad, according to police and hospital officials.

In the northern city of Mosul, gunmen killed a policeman and a roadside bomb killed an Iraqi soldier on foot patrol, police said.

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information to reporters.

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