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Meeting of Shiite rivals in Iraq may signal shift


Wednesday March 24, 2010    2:42 PM

BAGHDAD – The Iraqi prime minister held talks with a radical Shiite group he once tried to destroy in bloody street battles, both sides said Wednesday, showing his willingness to put aside animosities with some of his fiercest enemies to ensure a second term in office after a divisive election.

Nouri al-Maliki's outreach to a powerful faction within the Iranian-backed Iraqi National Alliance could also lead to the recreation of the wide-ranging Shiite alliance that dominated Iraq's politics for a lengthy stretch after the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Final results from the March 7 parliamentary election are expected to be released Friday, but no single group is likely to dominate the 325-member assembly, meaning a governing alliance will have to be forged.

In a sign of the maneuvering, al-Maliki made a public show Wednesday of meeting with President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, in an attempt to woo Kurdish supporters to his side.

And late in the evening, members of the Iraqi National Alliance held a news conference to discuss their own talks with al-Maliki's main challenger, the Iraqiya coalition of Sunnis and Shiites led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi — a clear signal that in Iraq's rapidly moving political scene few alliances are off the table.

On Tuesday night, the prime minister met with two representatives of the radical Shiite group led by anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

While it is too soon to say whether those talks will lead to a more concrete alliance, both al-Maliki and the Sadrists would have something to gain. The overture may be an attempt to show Allawi that he cannot hope for Sadrist support in his own efforts to regain the premiership.

The Sadrists, who have gone from fighting U.S. troops on the streets to a powerful political organization, could turn their street credentials into government power.

The Sadrists are widely thought to have the largest number of seats in the Iraqi National Alliance, and many analysts question whether the Sadrists might break off from the INA. Al-Maliki has also reached out to the other main party in the Shiite alliance, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.

Ali al-Adeeb, a candidate on al-Maliki's State of Law list, and a senior Sadrist official, Karrar al-Khafaji, both confirmed Tuesday's meeting. Al-Khafaji said the negotiations with al-Maliki were "positive" and that the two sides have "common ties."

Al-Khafaji said "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.

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. Al-Maliki has also refused to release al-Sadr's followers held in 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 Tuesday's talks, saying nothing has been achieved and that Sadrists were still firmly opposed to al-Maliki continuing as prime minister.

Whoever gets the top job will oversee Iraq as U.S. forces go home and help determine whether the country can overcome its sectarian divisions.

With 95 percent of the votes counted so far, al-Maliki and his supporters are in a dead heat with a coalition led by Allawi, a secular Shiite who has attracted a strong following among Iraq's Sunni community for his anti-Iran rhetoric.

Talks on forming a governing coalition could drag on. The last government took nearly six months to form.

The Kurds, who control their autonomous region in the north, will play a key role in forming the government. Al-Maliki's meeting Wednesday with Talabani appeared to be a public display for local reporters in which the two men highlighted their past history but said little of substance and took no questions.

Both leaders said they had discussed efforts to bring about a new government.

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

A tie-up between al-Maliki's list, the Kurds and the Sadrists could prove to be a winning combination, giving Maliki nearly enough seats to form a government, said Michael Hanna, an Iraq analyst with the Century Foundation.

"If Maliki's able to cut a deal with the Sadrists, that's a big deal," Hanna said, adding that there are still significant hurdles to overcome.

Scattered violence killed at least 10 people across Iraq Wednesday. In Baghdad, gunmen killed five Iraqi soldiers in a drive-by shooting on a checkpoint in a Sunni suburb near the airport.

In the western city of Hit, a suicide bomber targeting a police colonel killed the colonel's brother and two workers helping rebuild the officer's home after it had been targeted by another suicide bomber over a month ago, a police official said.

A police officer in Baqouba was killed trying to dismantle a bomb, and one person was killed in the northern city of Mosul by a grenade that targeted a police patrol, officials said.

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