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U.S. Encouraged By Iraqi Moves Toward New Government

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamil al-Maliki (right) looks on as Muqtada al-Sadr speaks to the media (file photo)

The United States says it is "encouraged" now that Iraqi political leaders seem to be taking steps toward forming a coalition government -- nearly seven months after nationwide elections.

State Department spokesman Philip Crowley added that Washington does not a have a favorite candidate that it wants to see at the top of the government in Baghdad.

"In a parliamentary system where you have multiple blocs that received significant support, but no one bloc is able to form a government on its own, you need to have the kind of political horsetrading that we're beginning to see,” Crowley told reporters. “We've been encouraging this for some time."

The U.S. spokesman's comments came after the main Shi'ite parliament bloc, the National Alliance, on October 1 announced its backing for incumbent Nuri al-Maliki to remain as prime minister.

The decision by the National Alliance, which joins Maliki's State of Law bloc and the Iran-friendly Iraqi National Alliance (INA), marked a breakthrough in talks among the country's Shi'ite political factions.

The faction led by radical anti-American cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, which forms a key part of the INA, provided crucial support to al-Maliki after months of demanding that he be replaced in the new government.

Maliki had angered the Sadrists by sending government troops to crush Sadr's Mahdi Army militia in 2008.

"The National Alliance held a meeting today, Friday, and discussed the nomination of its candidate for the post of prime minister," said Sadr bloc spokesman Nassar al-Rubaie at a press conference in Baghdad. "After consultation between the political blocs [of the National Alliance], they agreed to nominate Nuri al-Maliki for this post."

The spokesman did not explain the bloc's sudden shift in support.

The Shi'ite alliance, if it holds together, will still be a handful of seats short of a governing majority in the 325-seat parliament, meaning a deal with other blocs will be needed.

Al-Maliki is expected to hold talks with Kurdish leaders, whose support would give him the majority he needs. They are expected to back the incumbent prime minister.

However, those discussions, as well as distribution of government posts among the various factions that are backing Maliki, could take weeks or longer.

Lingering Shi'ite Dissent

But while the decision signaled an end to one political deadlock, it did not signal an end to all infighting among the country's Shi'ite political groups.

According to a website run by supporters of Shi'ite politician Ammar al-Hakim, his Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq party -- which is part of the National Alliance -- did not approve of al-Maliki. "The New York Times" reports that the party's leaders boycotted today's nominating session.

They and other parties could still throw their support behind incumbent Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who is al-Maliki's rival for the prime minister post in the new government.

Abdul-Mahdi has the backing of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, whose cross-sectarian Iraqiya bloc won the most seats in the spring's parliamentary elections, though still not an outright majority. It was heavily supported by Iraq's minority Sunnis.

Despite the lingering disagreement within the National Alliance, the Sadrist spokesman said that discussions among the various groups that won seats in the March 7 vote would continue until a new government is formed.

"The National Alliance will continue its talks with the different political powers to reach a national consensus to form a government of national unity. [The Alliance] asked its negotiating team to open a dialogue with the other winning political groups to form a government of national unity," he said.

written by Richard Solash with agency material and reporting by Radio Free Iraq