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Iraq rivals draw warning from top cleric as deal hopes dim

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AFP: Iraq’s two main contenders to head a new government remained at odds Friday, denting US hopes that a top envoy had advanced the prospects of a deal and drawing a warning from the top Shiite cleric.

by Steve Kirby

BAGHDAD, June 18, 2010 (AFP) – Iraq’s two main contenders to head a new government remained at odds Friday, denting US hopes that a top envoy had advanced the prospects of a deal and drawing a warning from the top Shiite cleric.

The persistent political vacuum three and a half months after a general election which gave no bloc the necessary majority to form a new administration has caused mounting concern in Washington as it prepares to withdraw 38,000 of its remaining 88,000 troops by the end of August.

The bickering also drew an ultimatum from the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority community, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to intervene if the politicians did not forge a deal quickly.

Former prime minister Iyad al-Allawi, whose list won the largest number of seats in the March 7 election, dismissed as simplistic suggestions he forgo what he sees as his constitutional right to have first go at forming a government in the interests of breaking the deadlock.

Incumbent Nuri al-Maliki, whose bloc came second, in turn rejected proposals that he surrender some of the powers of the premiership as part of a national unity deal, warning that a feeble government would be a recipe for civil war.

Washington has been pressing for a coalition agreement that embraces all of Iraq’s main political blocs for fear that the exclusion of any faction among the country’s divided Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish communities might spark a new upsurge in violence.

US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman held talks with all of Iraq’s main political leaders between Tuesday and Thursday in a bid to promote an inclusive deal.

“I don’t think there is going to be a breakthrough immediately,” a senior US diplomat acknowledged.

“But the fact is that all sides are talking and the one thing that they are agreed on is that there has to be a government where Sunnis, Shias and Kurds all play a significant role,” the diplomat told AFP.

Allawi and Maliki held their first head-to-head talks last Saturday which they described as “cordial,” but in separate interviews released on Friday they remained poles apart.

In an interview with The Times of London, Maliki rejected any compromise involving a collegiate premiership with a prime minister and deputy prime ministers sharing powers.

“Some people want a traffic cop for this job, one whom nobody obeys,” Maliki told the daily.

“A state cannot be run like that,” said the incumbent premier who has made his political reputation out of taking a strong hand to both Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias.

“A feeble government would take Iraq back into sectarian war.”

But asked by CNN whether he was prepared to step aside to pave the way for a deal with Maliki, Allawi said: “The issue is much more complex than this. It is very unfortunate that people are trying to simplify things.”

In a rare direct intervention on the political scene, the reclusive Shiite spiritual leader called on the squabbling rivals to set aside their differences and reach a deal quickly in the interests of the nation.

Sistani’s spokesman Hamed al-Khaffaf said the top cleric was not seeking to promote any one candidate for the premiership and stressed that he was not seeking to favour the religious Maliki over the secular Allawi, whose Iraqiya list drew many of his votes from Sunni Arabs.

“The authority (Sistani) hopes an efficient government able to solve the country’s problems will be formed in the shortest time possible to avoid the sort of large political problem that requires the intervention of the authority,” Khaffaf told reporters in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf.

“The authority will not support any of the candidates for the premiership nor will it reject any of them,” the spokesman said.

“Sistani confirmed to all his political visitors, including Iraqiya with which he had a very good meeting, that the formation of the government is subject to dialogue between political blocs according to the mechanism set by the constitution,” he added.

The spokesman rejected reports that Sistani had had a hand in the formation of an alliance between Maliki’s Shiite-led State of Law list and the main Shiite religious bloc that has given it more seats in parliament than Allawi’s grouping.

“The religious authority did not have any role in this alliance, and never spoke about this issue,” he said.

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