Reporting from Baghdad — After months of pressuring Iraqis to form a new government quickly, the U.S. is now urging them to slow down rather than rush into a deal that would run counter to U.S. interests and risk further destabilizing the country.
The turnabout in the U.S. approach came after anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's political faction agreed to support Prime Minister Nouri Maliki for a second term, propelling the incumbent close to the parliamentary majority he needs to keep his job.
If Maliki can strike a deal with Iraq's Kurds, he will have enough support to form a government. But such a government would contradict goals the U.S. has been working toward since the March elections.
Under a plan promoted by Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. officials had hoped that Maliki would remain prime minister in a power-sharing arrangement with Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite Muslim leader whose Iraqiya bloc commands the support of most Sunni Arabs and won two more seats in the elections than Maliki's group.
Instead, a government spearheaded by Maliki and the Sadr faction would marginalize Sunnis and is likely to be more closely aligned with Tehran than Washington. In an affirmation of Iran's blossoming relationship with Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister is due to visit Tehran on Monday.
The U.S. is pushing back, putting pressure on the Kurds not to rush to endorse Maliki, U.S. and Iraqi officials say.
"We'd rather they did it right than did it quickly," said one U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.
It is still their goal, U.S. officials say, that Iraq's new government represent all major blocs — especially the Sunnis. Their widespread participation in the balloting was viewed as an opportunity to expand their role and perhaps tamp down the remnants of the Sunni insurgency.
The U.S. is supporting an initiative of the president of Iraq's Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani, to convene a round-table meeting of all the major blocs aimed at forming a national unity government. In a telephone call to Barzani this month, Biden urged him to "expedite" the formation of such a government, according to a White House statement.
But Biden made it clear he did not want the Kurds to move swiftly toward any solution that excluded the Sunni Arabs, Kurdish officials say.
"Don't hurry. That was Biden's message," said Kurdish legislator Mahmoud Othman. "Biden supports Barzani's initiative and he's asking Barzani not to hurry in making a coalition with Maliki."
The U.S. is also continuing to try to persuade Maliki and Allawi to find ways to share power.
Under one scenario, Allawi would become president, something Iraqiya officials have hinted they would consider if the job is given authority beyond the largely ceremonial duties outlined in Iraq's Constitution.
Another proposal would have Iraqiya throw its support behind an alternative Shiite candidate, Adel Abdul Mehdi, whose small Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq faction is still refusing to back Maliki.
But it may be difficult to avoid an outcome nearly identical to the governments formed in 2005 and 2006, when Shiites and Kurds formed alliances and shut out the Sunnis. That formula helped tip Iraq into sectarian war.
Negotiations between the Kurds and Maliki are already at a relatively advanced stage. Officials with Maliki's State of Law coalition say they are ready to agree to almost everything on a list of Kurdish demands, including guarantees they would implement an article of Iraq's Constitution that Kurds hope will give them control of the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
Hard-line Sunni Arab factions within Allawi's bloc oppose any deal that would result in Kurdish control of Kirkuk, leaving Allawi little room to maneuver.
Maliki's aides seem confident that their candidate will soon win Kurdish endorsement, and that a government will begin to take shape within weeks.
Although officials with Maliki's State of Law coalition say they want to include Iraqiya, they also make it clear that they are prepared to move forward without Allawi's bloc if necessary.
"We have to move quickly, not to lose the momentum," said lawmaker Haidar Abadi, a close aide to Maliki. "It's up to us and the Kurds."
The Kurds, in their role as kingmaker, say they are in no rush to endorse a government without the Sunnis, which could ignite tensions between Sunni Arabs and Kurds along the disputed borders of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq. The Kurds also are mindful that Maliki made promises to win their support in 2006 that he did not fulfill.
"It is very difficult to imagine that we could form a government without the Sunnis," said Kurdish lawmaker Firyad Rawanduzi. "And the gaps between the blocs are still very large, so I think it needs at least two more months."
But if Maliki is prepared to give the Kurds solid guarantees on priority Kurdish issues such as the status of Kirkuk, it would be hard to turn him down, said Kurdish legislator Othman.
"We don't want to be the reason behind the marginalization of others, so we are not in a hurry," he said. "But in the end, Kurds will go with their own interests."