Fri Apr 21, 2006 6:36 PM ET
By Michael Georgy
Iraqi leaders may break a four-month deadlock over a new prime minister on Saturday that has held up the formation of a national unity government, widely seen as vital to avert any slide into sectarian civil war.
The ruling Shi’ite Alliance’s nomination of Jawad al-Maliki as a compromise prime minister could end the political wrangling because it has already been backed by the main Sunni Arab bloc.
The main Kurdish grouping has made no comment so far but independent Kurdish politician Mahmoud Othman welcomed Maliki’s nomination.
“It looks like there’s movement and that’s good news,” U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters in Washington.
The United States is banking on a national unity government to stabilize Iraq and enable it to start bringing home its more than 130,000 troops.
After delays caused by the impasse, parliament is due to sit on Saturday for only the second time since December 15 elections.
Maliki had previously been widely viewed as a sectarian politician, but Sunni political leaders say they can live with him and his appointment seems likely to be approved by the 275-seat parliament.
The support of the Sunni leaders is vital as the insurgents draw their support from the minority Sunni community. Sunnis were dominant during Saddam Hussein’s rule but the majority Shi’ite Muslims now hold sway.
“We know he has made tough statements in the past but we have sat down with him for long periods of time and we feel he has a strong intention to treat the problems facing Iraq,” Iyad al-Samarraie, an Iraqi Accordance Front official, told Reuters.
The Shi’ite Alliance’s original choice for the job, interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, signaled on Thursday he was ready to step aside to end the stalemate that Washington feared was fuelling bloodshed.
Sectarian violence has exploded since the February bombing of a Shi’ite shrine touched off reprisals and counter-reprisals. Dozens of bodies with bullet holes and torture marks turn up every week and more than 65,000 families have fled their homes, often driven out by religious militias.
Maliki was a leader in Jaafari’s Dawa party who spent years living in Shi’ite Iran during Saddam’s rule.
If Maliki, who is close to Jaafari, wins support from all political alliances, he will face a tough job tackling the insurgency, easing sectarian strife and rescuing the oil-rich country’s economy, which has been starved of foreign investment.
Although a deal on prime minister is likely to be hailed by authorities as a victory for democracy, many Iraqis are wary and exhausted three years after the U.S.-led invasion. Their country is plagued by bombings, shootings, kidnappings and crime.
Critics accused Jaafari of monopolising power, pursuing sectarian policies and failing to curb raging violence, charges he denied.
If parliament sits on Saturday, it is widely expected to debate nominations for the posts of speaker and a three-man presidential council before a formal vote for prime minister can be held.