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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 March 2006, 08:20 GMT
Iraq's tortuous search for unity
By David Gritten
BBC News website

Three months after the elections, Iraq's political parties are repeating the tortuous wrangling that epitomised negotiations over the transitional government and the draft constitution.

Despite considerable international pressure, the talks have been stalled by each party's insistence on pursuing their own narrowly-defined ethnic, sectarian and political interests.

The delay is thought to be partly responsible for fuelling the increasing sectarian violence which has stricken Iraq since last month's bombing of the al-Askari shrine at Samarra, one of Shia Islam's holiest.

SHIA DIVISIONS

Just as before December's election, the Shia-led United Iraqi Alliance is the main bloc in parliament, having won 128 out of 275 seats.

Jalal Talabani, Adel Abdel Mahdi and Ibrahim Jaafari
Iraq's politicians have already held months of talks

Ten seats short of a majority, the UIA must form another coalition with a number of the Kurdish, secular, and Sunni Arab parties.

And yet again, the talks have been stalled by arguments over who should be included.

Despite statements by UIA leaders committing themselves to inclusiveness and national unity, some sections of the Shia alliance have said they are vehemently opposed to the inclusion of former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's secular Iraqi National List.

The Sadr Bloc of MPs, representing radical Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr, have said they would consider Mr Allawi's participation a "red line" that must not be crossed.

Mr Sadr is suspicious of Mr Allawi's close ties with the US, and has never forgiven him for supporting a US-led military assault on the Mahdi Army in Najaf and Karbala in 2004.

But the UIA's potential coalition partners have criticised Mr Sadr's stance and have threatened to pull out if Mr Allawi is not included.

They have also called on the UIA to withdraw its nomination of Ibrahim Jaafari for the premiership, which he narrowly won in a party vote last month with the support of the Sadr Bloc.

Prime Minister Jaafari has been widely criticised for poor performance in government and for allowing Shia politicians to dominate the main ministries.

His Daawa Party's main partner in the UIA, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri), has demanded it retain control of the interior ministry.

Recognising the criticism, he has vowed to include representatives of all parties in his future cabinet, but he is unlikely to cede control of some key portfolios.

Further divisions may emerge within the UIA if Daawa and Sciri push for federalism in southern Iraq, as Mr Sadr has long been vehement opponent.

KURDISH CRITICISM

The Kurdistan Alliance has held months of talks with the UIA on forming a new government, but it is now appears to be leading the opposition.

Jalal Talabani (L) and Iyad Allawi (R)
The Kurdistan Alliance has insisted Mr Allawi's party is included

It has criticised Mr Sadr's stance on refusing to enter a coalition with Mr Allawi, and has formed an impromptu alliance to block the retention of Mr Jaafari as prime minister.

There has even been talk of the Kurdish, Sunni Arab and secular parties forming an opposition alliance in parliament that would have more MPs than the UIA.

Having felt marginalised in the current administration, the Kurds are now demanding Mr Jaafari break the Shia monopolisation of power in return for their co-operation.

They also want him to press ahead with federalism and to settle the status of the northern oil city of Kirkuk, which Kurds want as the future capital of a new autonomous region.

SUNNI ALLIANCE

The leading Sunni parties have also refused to join a national unity government unless their calls for Mr Jaafari to be replaced and for change at the interior ministry are heeded.

Iraqi police commandos
The US has joined calls for changes at the Interior Ministry

Many Sunni Arabs accuse the Sciri-controlled ministry of operating death squads targeting their community and believe the Shia party's militia, the Badr Brigade, to be responsible.

Much will hinge, therefore, on negotiations over cabinet positions in the new government, with the Sunni alliance wanting ministers with no sectarian or ethnic bias.

In an effort to create a "political balance" in those negotiations, the two main Sunni Arab alliances, the Iraqi Accord Front and the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, formed a united front with Mr Allawi's Iraqi National List.

But even with 80 seats in parliament, it is unlikely the front will have a significant influence on the make-up of the new cabinet.



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