Reporting from Baghdad — Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr's political movement announced its support Friday for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's bid for a second term, a significant boost for him despite many remaining obstacles to his bid to continue leading the country.
Rival Shiite religious factions are in negotiations to form an alliance with Maliki's chief competitor in March parliamentary elections, former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular politician.
Hassan Suneid, a member of Maliki's bloc, said the Sadr bloc's endorsement would help pave the way for forming a government and holding regular parliamentary sessions.
The Sadr announcement was made through the National Alliance, comprising Maliki's State of Law coalition and a grouping that includes Sadr supporters and other Shiite Islamist parties.
However, two of the Sadr coalition partners, with at least 17 seats between them, have refused to back Maliki. The Sadr bloc denied that, pointing to the attendance of a member of one of the groups at the announcement.
If anything, the path to a new government, nearly seven months after the elections, could become more complicated as divisions deepen among the Shiite political parties.
Jumaa Atwani of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, one of the parties that skipped the announcement, said Maliki does not have enough support to form a government. The council has backed current Vice President Adel Abdul Mehdi for the post of prime minister.
The Sadr movement's endorsement could create an aura of inevitability around Maliki or have the unintended consequence of rallying the diverse ranks of his opponents behind an alternative candidate.
Maliki has been credited with bringing stability to Iraq, though his critics have accused him of authoritarian tendencies. They fault him for excluding all groups but his own Shiite Islamist Dawa Party from decision-making.
Allawi has been in serious talks with the dissident Shiite factions, notably the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and Al Fadila al Islamiya. If the groups come together, Allawi's Iraqiya bloc, which won two more seats than Maliki's in March, is willing to back Abdul Mehdi's candidacy, according to members of Allawi's coalition and ISCI supporters.
Both Allawi and the ISCI had hoped that the Sadrists, whose antipathy for Maliki was well known, would join them. Maliki's opponents speculated that Sadr had come under intense pressure from Iran to endorse the prime minister. Tehran had dispatched a special team to Iraq to push the Sadr camp and other parties to back Maliki, an Iraqi politician said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
The latest developments leave the Kurds, who have 57 seats in the 325-seat parliament, in the role of kingmaker.
Salman is a Times staff writer.