Iraq's two largest Shiite electoral blocs announced Tuesday they have formed an alliance that gives them a strong chance of setting up the next government, though they have yet to work out the contentious question of who would become prime minister.
The coalition deal between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law coalition and the conservative Shiite Iraqi National Alliance leaves them just four parliamentary seats shy of a ruling majority.
The union could cement Shiite domination of Iraq's government and further alienate minority Sunnis who lost their positions of privilege with the fall of their patron Saddam Hussein in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Such an outcome threatens to stir further violence at an especially fragile moment in Iraq as American troops prepare to withdraw. It could also ensure that neighboring Shiite power Iran maintains influence in Iraqi affairs.
The coalition deal was announced at a news conference, but the question of who would be prime minister could threaten to derail their plans to form a government.
"Despite the challenges and the risks, both coalitions have agreed to announce the formation of a single parliamentary bloc," said Abdul-Razaq al-Kazemi of the Iraqi National Alliance.
Al-Kazemi, who took no questions from reporters, was flanked by officials from State of Law and the movement of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose followers make up the strongest group in the Iraqi National Alliance.
Iraq's close fought election on March 7 produced no clear winner, forcing extensive negotiations between the political factions and deepening divisions as the political debate has dragged on for almost two months.
Adding to the confusion are the steps al-Maliki has taken to challenge the election results, which showed his coalition with a two-seat deficit to the Iraqiya coalition of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a Shiite who won solid Sunni backing by campaigning for an end to sectarian politics.
Al-Maliki successfully demanded a recount of Baghdad votes, and a committee tasked with vetting candidates for ties to Saddam Hussein's regime has tried to bar many politicians on Allawi's electoral list.
Role of Sunnis
The Shiite alliance came about because the Shiite parties were worried about Allawi's chances of forming a government and decided to outmaneuver him, said Joost Hiltermann from the International Crisis Group.
"The way to prevent Allawi from forming a government is to make sure he doesn't get a chance," he said.
Tuesday's news raises questions about what role the Sunnis, who widely backed Allawi, would have in any new government the Shiite alliance would be able to form. Neither State of Law nor the National Alliance have much more than token Sunni support.
Forming a government that excludes them would deepen Sunni disillusionment and sow further instability.
Sunni insurgent groups have demonstrated they remain capable of staging large-scale attacks involving multiple bombings in the heart of the capital despite government successes like the recent killing of al-Qaida in Iraq's two top leaders.
The alliance immediately drew the ire of Allawi's Iraqiya. A spokeswoman for the bloc, Maysoun al-Damlouji, warned that this indicated a return to sectarianism. She said the alliance was designed to undermine Iraqiya and, alluding to Iran, she said it was carrying out the will of a "neighboring country."
The Shiite alliance will likely try to lure Sunnis from Allawi's coalition in an attempt to boost their numbers and give their coalition at least some degree of legitimacy with the Sunni community, Hiltermann said.
Even with Tuesday's deal, serious hurdles remain in the way of the new Shiite coalition.
Previous talks to create a pan-Shiite alliance failed because followers of al-Sadr have long been antagonistic to al-Maliki, who routed their Mahdi Army militia and jailed thousands of their supporters. The Sadrists are widely believed to object to any deal in which al-Maliki keeps the prime minister's chair, although they indicated Tuesday that they were keeping their options open.
Al-Maliki was not at Tuesday's news conference.
Support from Iran
Nassar al-Rubaie of the Sadrist bloc said nothing was being ruled out as to whom the alliance would back for the top job.
"The position of the prime minister is the right of all blocs, which have the right to nominate their candidates. This position is not exclusive to any specific bloc," he said.
An official from the State of Law, Hassan al-Suneid, said representatives from the new alliance would meet Wednesday to begin discussing how to choose the coalition's nominee for prime minister. He emphasized that al-Maliki was still the State of Law's choice.
State of Law won 89 seats in the new parliament, and the Iraqi National Alliance won 70 seats. Their combined 159 seats leave them just four away from the simple majority required to govern.
The pan-Shiite alliance is believed to have heavy support from neighboring Iran, which has at different times played host to Shiite politicians in an attempt to create just such an alliance.
Besides overcoming the formidable challenge of deciding who will be its pick for prime minister, the new alliance will also need to determine where the rest of the seats to form their ruling coalition will come from.
The Kurds, widely considered key to forming any Iraqi government, have said repeatedly that they will demand tough concessions in exchange for lending their support to any coalition. In particular, they would like concessions on the fate of oil-rich Kirkuk — a city claimed by both Arabs and Kurds — and oil rights in the Kurdish autonomous region that they dominate in the north.