DAMASCUS // Ayad Allawi, the narrow winner of the Iraqi elections, pulled out of a weekend trip to Syria during which he had been expected to hold talks with the influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr. The prospect of a face-to-face meeting between two key Iraqi power brokers - and former enemies - had raised expectations of a break in the political deadlock that continues to prevent the formation of a government in Baghdad.
In Mr Allawi's absence, Mr al Sadr went ahead with talks with the Syrian president, Bashar al Assad, in Damascus on Saturday. Contacts between Mr Allawi's Iraqiyya coalition and the Sadrists, which secured a king-making parliamentary bloc of 39 seats, have to date been limited to delegations, rather than direct meetings between the two leaders who waged war on one another in 2004. "Ayad Allawi was due to come here to meet Muqtada al Sadr for political talks but there was a change of plan," said Ahmed al Dulami, the official spokesman for Iraqiyya in Syria. He said the meeting had been dropped on Mr Allawi's initiative.
Iraqiyya won an inconclusively narrow election victory in the March 7 elections, ahead of the incumbent prime minister Nouri al Maliki, who subsequently entered into a shaky alliance with the Sadr movement and other Shiite groups to boost his strength. Although that has given his bloc more parliamentary clout than Iraqiyya, his chief rivals, Mr al Maliki's allies have so far been unwilling to support him in another term of office, insisting the top post go to someone else. He maintains that, as head of the largest party in the Shiite coalition, he should retain the premier's chair.
The prospect of Mr al Sadr, who is currently based in Iran, having talks in Damascus with Mr Allawi, who enjoys the backing of Arab and western states, added to speculation that a deal over the Iraqi government had been in the making. No formal details have been released on any such proposals. The only communiqué from the meeting between Mr al Sadr and Mr al Assad was a statement issued on SANA, Syria's official news agency. It said the Syrian leader had told Mr al Sadr that "any delay to form a national unity government will have a negative impact on the situation in Iraq".
SANA said Mr al Sadr had thanked Syria "for working in favour of security and stability in Iraq". Mazen Bilal, a Syrian journalist writing for the privately run al Ghad website - the first to break the news that Mr al Sadr was flying into Damascus from Tehran - said he had been assured the visit was not a matter of routine. "My understanding is that this is something new, that they [the Sadrists] came with the outlines of a proposed deal and some Iranian guarantees," he said. "That would allow for Mr al Maliki to stay on as prime minister but would give Ayad Allawi and his people key positions while the Sadrists get control of some important ministries. "They wanted to see what Syria's reaction would be to that."
Discussions among the multitude of political players with an interest in Iraq's future remain largely a subject for bewildered speculation. Even the parties themselves appear to have little notion of what is happening. But if Mr al Maliki's bid to retain his job has now got the backing of Tehran, it could be a decisive boost for him. Tehran's relationship with Mr Allawi remains distinctly cool because he is viewed as Washington and Riyadh's man, Iran's key rivals.
Syria's links with Tehran remain strong but its connections with Mr al Maliki were torn apart after he openly accused Damascus of harbouring militants involved in a string of murderous attacks in Baghdad last year. Since that very public falling out, Syrian and Iraqi observers say, contacts between Mr Maliki and Damascus have been quietly resumed. A number of senior officials from Iraq and Syria have been in touch with one another, something seen as a signal that Damascus would not have a problem with a Maliki reappointment - another boost to his hopes.
Syrian co-operation with the next Iraqi government is an important condition for its success, particularly given the presence of exiled Iraqi Baathists in Damascus. Any last lasting political settlement that ends the insurgency would need to include them. Without positive backing from its neighbours, Baghdad would continue to struggle to find its feet. Iran, Syria, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia or any combination of the four could make life difficult for Iraq, if they so chose.
Khalid al Maeny, a Damascus-based Iraqi political researcher specialising in the insurgency, said Mr al Sadr and Mr Allawi had good contacts with Damascus, giving Syria a potentially influential mediating role. "There are proposals on the table for sharing power between Maliki and Allawi," he said. "The key for any Iraqi government is that Iran and her allies can come to some acceptable accommodation with America and her allies over this. Syria has been pushing for an independent Iraq, free from occupation, and is an important part of that equation."
Iraqiyya's Damascus spokesman, Mr al Dulami refused to be drawn on whether a political package had been tabled by a combination that joined the Sadrists and Maliki, in cooperation with Iran and Syria. "Our position is clear," he said. "We want the government of Iraq formed in Iraq, in accordance with the constitution which gives Iraqiyya the right [to lead the government]." He dismissed any suggestion that a new initiative brought to Damascus by the Sadrists meant Iraq was any closer to forming a government, more than four months after the election took place.
"A deal over the government remains a long, long way off." he said. firstname.lastname@example.org