As Iraq's new parliament prepares to meet Monday, the country's two top Shi'ite political blocs, including the (State of Law) party led by incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, have announced they are joining forces. Although they are a few seats short of a majority, the alliance gives the Shi'ites the largest bloc in the Baghdad parliament. The Shi'ite leaders feel this gives them the right to form the next Iraqi government.
Iraq's two top Shi'ite political blocs, under Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and Sheikh Ammar Hakim, have agreed in writing to form a joint parliamentary coalition, the largest in the new parliament. Their members hold 159 of the 325 seats in parliament - four short of an absolute majority.
Hassan al Sanid, a spokesman for Prime Minister al Maliki's State of Law Party, said the two party leaders have announced their alliance in a letter to the honorary speaker of the new parliament. Sanid says the letter formalized details of the new alliance, and he emphasized its status as the largest bloc of parliament members.
Both outgoing Prime Minister Maliki and former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi have been wrangling over who should have the right to form the new government.
Mr. Allawi's group won 91 seats, compared to 89 members from Mr. Maliki's party, and insists that he should get the nod to try to form the next government.
However, Prime Minister Maliki insisted in an interview Friday (with Alhurra television) that because his supporters and members of Mr. Hakim's National Alliance Party together hold 159 seats, they have the right to lead the new government.
Mr. Maliki says he wants Mr. Allawi's support. The prime minister says he wants to meet with Mr. Allawi and his supporters, and does not want to go forward without their backing. Even though he now leads the largest parliamentary bloc, Mr. Maliki says he wants Mr. Allawi's Iraqiya bloc to join as partners.
He is urging Mr. Allawi to meet with him as soon as possible.
The former prime minister sees the situation differently. Writing Friday in a leading U.S. newspaper (an opinion column in The New York Times), Mr. Allawi maintained that his Iraqiya bloc won the most seats outright in this year's election, and therefore has the constitutional right to form the next government.
Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace argues that "the clock is ticking" [time is slipping away] during this phase of political maneuvering. She says the biggest problem for the Maliki-Hakim alliance is its leaders' inability to agree on a mutually suitable choice to be Iraq's next prime minister. "Now that the elections have been certified it was important for the two groups to announce that they have formed a bloc. But if they have not said that they have agreed on a prime minister, then to me the alliance is very weak and essentially this is a maneuver to say they are the ones to whom the new president, whenever he is elected, should give the job of forming the government," she said.
Joost Hiltermann of the Crisis Group goes a step further, noting that Mr. Maliki and Sheikh Hakim's parties could not unite in the first place for the simple reason that they could not agree on the name of a candidate for prime minister. "The two lists are the constituent parts of the original United Iraqi Alliance of 2005, and they were unable to stay together last summer as the parties were preparing for the parliamentary elections, and the conflict then was over who should be the leader of that list and who would then be prime minister following the elections. This issue they have not been able to resolve until today," he said.
The Iraqi parliament is due to meet for the first time on Monday, to elect a new speaker. Parliament will then choose a new Iraqi president, whose job it will be to designate someone to form the next government.