BAGHDAD — With Iraqis increasingly concerned about a security vacuum, the man who is expected to become the next prime minister on Saturday defended the winning blocs, which have not formed a government nearly six weeks after millions of people risked their lives to vote.
In an interview, Ibrahim Jafari, the nominee of the slate that won the most votes in the Jan. 30 election, said it could take two more weeks to close a deal.
"It's not a simple experiment," Jafari said, trying to explain the delay in forming a government. "It's a complex one."
Behind the scenes, the two largest vote-getters, Jafari's Shiite Muslim-dominated United Iraqi Alliance and the Kurds, are engaged in frantic negotiations. The groups are meeting almost round the clock, and there has been constant maneuvering as the two try to compromise while satisfying their respective constituencies.
Last week, some politicians announced that a government would be set by the first meeting of the new National Assembly, scheduled for Wednesday. But now it appears likely that the meeting will be ceremonial while negotiations continue.
That leaves Iraqis, frightened by two large suicide bombings this month that killed nearly 200 people, wondering why they braved insurgents' threats to go to the ballot box.
Shopkeeper Mohammed Saddoun stood in front of his storefront grocery last week with several friends, lamenting the delay.
"I am not only frustrated, I am ready to burst with anger," Saddoun said. "We put our souls in the ... palms of our hands and went to the ballot centers. You remember the threats there were that they would kill people who voted.
"Well, if they cannot form a government, then I think they are not qualified to manage the country's affairs. This vacuum of power increases the number of terrorist acts, it opens the way for the terrorists."
Sabah Yusef, 25, a political science student at Baghdad University, described an overwhelming sense of disappointment and confusion. A Sunni Muslim, he did not vote. Now, with the government seemingly adrift, he says he has no idea who is running his country.
"I feel sad to see the Iraqi government in such a situation. I keep wishing they would agree on a government and then hold general elections for all Iraqis.... Until now we know nothing about how the government will be formed. Nothing has surfaced," he said.
Throughout Baghdad, one of the most mixed cities in Iraq, there are rumblings of discontent and cynicism, even though many people here voted for one of the three slates that took the most votes: the United Iraqi Alliance; Iraqi List, the ticket of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi; or a coalition of the main Kurdish parties.
The doubts are still deeper among those who did not vote -- supporters of anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr and many Sunnis Arabs who feel they have been left out of the political equation.
Toward evening in Sadr City recently, several tribal sheiks gathered outside Sadr's office to chat before prayers.
"You know, we've never had any real government and now this is not a real government either; these are all the same people who came riding on American tanks. They did nothing before and they will do nothing in the future," said Awad Abid Zubaidi, 35, before adding a common refrain: "We don't really know who is in charge or whether a government will be formed."
Western diplomats say they are not concerned about the delay in forming a government, pointing out that this is the Iraqis' first experience in the democratic jockeying for political power.
The United Iraqi Alliance is made up of several Shiite religious parties as well as some independents and secular groups. The Kurds, who would be the minority partner in the government, are united on most issues.
United Iraqi Alliance member Ahmad Chalabi, who appears to be positioning himself as a broker, traveled to the Kurdish north Friday to hear the Kurds' demands. Chalabi was based in Kurdistan for long periods and has a close relationship with the two largest political parties there.
At stake is the relative power of the different slates; control over key ministries and other important positions in the government; and policies on some of the most contentious issues in Iraq, such as control of the region, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, and the degree of provincial autonomy.
The latter two are of chief importance to the Kurds, who have held a relatively efficient autonomous region in northern Iraq since the United States and allies declared the north a "no-fly zone" after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. They do not want interference from the new government.
Some of these issues were to wait until the writing of the constitution, but the Kurds appear eager to resolve them now.
"The Kurds are making demands no one can grant and still keep the support of the Iraqi people," said Jaber Habib, a professor of political science at Baghdad University.