DAMASCUS // A flurry of diplomacy in Damascus involving the Syrian president, Turkey's foreign minister, Iraq's election winner and an Iranian-schooled radical Iraqi cleric aimed to break through Baghdad's political deadlock this week and pave the way for a new governing alliance. Ayad Allawi and Muqtada al Sadr - the two men who waged war on one another in 2004 - met in Damascus on Monday, after an 11th hour invitation was issued to Mr Allawi by the Syrian president, Bashar Assad. Until that point, it appeared unlikely that the former Iraqi prime minister would personally attend talks.
Mr Allawi, the leader of the Iraqiyya bloc that narrowly won Iraq's March elections, and Mr al Sadr, the head of the powerful grassroots Sadr movement agreed to a broad set of principles as a result of their discussions, according to Ahmed al Dulaimi, an Iraqiyya official. Perhaps most critically, they united in refusing to allow Iraq's current prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, to stay in office for another term, Mr al Dulaimi said.
"They [Mr Allawi and Mr al Sadr] agreed there must be a peaceful hand-over of power and that authority would be divided up in a way that respected the election results," he said yesterday. "They also agreed to speed up efforts in forming a new government and that there must be no renewal for Nouri al Maliki as prime minister." Such a deal could seriously undermine Mr al Maliki. His State of Law coalition has already entered into a grand alliance with Mr al Sadr's group, in conjunction with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), an effort designed to give him the largest parliamentary bloc and, therefore, the ability to form the next government despite coming second in the election.
That alliance, however, appears to have been fatally undermined by Mr al Maliki's insistence that he retain his position as premier. Attempts to nominate a compromise candidate have floundered. It is against this backdrop that the Sadrists have turned towards Iraqiyya. If they were to join forces, together with ISCI, the three collectively have almost sufficient parliamentary seats to form a government, independently of Mr al Maliki.
The threat of being outflanked is one the incumbent prime minister seems to be well aware of. According to an Iraqi involved in Monday's Damascus talks, Mr al Maliki telephoned Mr Allawi immediately after the latter's meeting with Mr al Sadr and asked him to come to Baghdad immediately for "urgent" discussions - apparently intending to launch an outflanking manoeuvre of his own on the Sadrists. That, in turn, suggests that Monday's Damascus talks, by adding to the pressure on Mr al Maliki, could open the door for a deal between his State of Law party and Iraqiyya - although he would have to agree to step down as prime minister for that to happen, something that seems unlikely.
Iraqiyya officials say they have pushed the idea of forming a simple two-bloc governing alliance with State of Law, a deal that would appear common sense given their converging nationalist and secular leaning agendas. It would also do away with the necessity of forming a complex multi-coalition government beholden to numerous minority interests. However, Iraqiyya insists that as the senior partner it gets to choose who is prime minister, something Mr al Maliki has emphatically refused, they say, even turning down offers of an alternative top position in the administration.
The talks in Damascus represent a new drive by Syria, Turkey and Iran to break the logjam currently paralysing Baghdad politics. Mr al Sadr, while an outspoken Iraqi nationalist, is currently based in Iran and has close links with the Tehran authorities. Syria and Turkey also maintain strategic relationships with Iran. Although a face-to-face meeting between Mr Allawi and Mr al Sadr marks a new departure in Iraq's post-election landscape, it seems unlikely that any breakthrough is imminent with major differences remaining.
A member of the Iraqiyya delegation said the talks had been "positive but inconclusive, like running on the spot". The tensions afflicting Iraq's political factions, including prospective allies, was underlined at the Damascus talks. Mr al Sadr refused to have Saleh al Mutlaq, a senior Iraqiyya official who was barred from the election over Baathist links, present in meetings. In turn, Mr Allawi declined to have a senior member of the Sadr delegation present; on the grounds he had headed a militia that attempted to assassinate Mr Allawi in 2005.
Separately from the Damascus talks, Iraqiyya yesterday announced it would table a claim at the United Nations on August 8 calling for international recognition of its right to form a new government. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org