A major U.S. diplomatic push aimed at promoting a coalition government between the top two vote-getters in Iraq's inconclusive national elections suffered a setback Monday when former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi broke off negotiations with his nearest rival, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.
Allawi's Iraqiya bloc, which narrowly came in first in the March voting, announced it was suspending talks with Maliki's State of Law bloc until Maliki apologizes for a comment in a TV interview aired Monday in which he described Iraqiya as a Sunni bloc.
Allawi is a secular Shiite Muslim whose bloc attracted the support of most members of Iraq's Sunni Arab minority but also a fair number of Shiites, and it is the only parliamentary bloc that can claim a mixture of Sunnis and Shiites among its ranks.
Iraqiya spokeswoman Maysoon Damluji said Maliki's comment mischaracterized Iraqiya.
"We are a nationalist, nonsectarian bloc. We don't think in terms of Iraq as being Sunni, Shiite and Kurd," she said. "We refuse to negotiate with anyone who sees us as other than we are."
Izzat Shahbandar, an official with Maliki's coalition, called the suspension "regrettable and strange" but said Maliki would not apologize. Maliki and many other politicians have repeatedly characterized Allawi's bloc as representative of the Sunnis, because voting patterns showed the vast majority of Sunnis voted for it, Shahbandar said.
"I think Iraqiya was looking for an excuse to break off talks with State of Law," he said.
The suspension further muddies prospects for a deal on a new government in the foreseeable future, let alone before U.S. troops draw down to 50,000 by the end of August and formally transition to a noncombat role.
With less than two weeks to go, there are now no serious talks taking place on a new government, more than five months after national elections in March failed to produce a conclusive result.
The latest parrying also adds to the uncertainty surrounding Maliki's candidacy. Both of the two major coalitions, either of whose votes he would need to keep his job, are now refusing to talk to him. The Shiite Iraqi National Alliance, the third-largest bloc, broke off talks with the State of Law bloc last month and said it would resume talks only if the bloc ditched Maliki as its candidate.
Only the Kurds, who do not have enough votes to give Maliki a second term, have somewhat unenthusiastically said they do not reject him.
Nonetheless, some U.S. officials have in recent weeks been pushing for Maliki to stay in the position, in an alliance with Allawi that would dilute the prime minister's authority and give Allawi enhanced powers as head of a council in charge of national security, according to officials from both blocs.
The proposal was energetically promoted by Ambassador Christopher Hill on the eve of his departure last week, as well as by Antony Blinken, the national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden who visited Baghdad this month, the officials say. Hill is to be replaced this week by Ambassador James Jeffrey, who served as deputy chief of mission in Baghdad from 2004 to 2005.
In the meantime, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman is in Baghdad bridging the gap, and has been promoting a less specific version of the Allawi-Maliki alliance in which the U.S. does not favor either candidate, the officials say.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said the U.S. would support such a coalition, but added, "We're not dictating terms."
"We believe a coalition between Iraqiya and State of Law would reflect the March election results, but we're not promoting any specific outcome," he said.
The U.S. activity is a sign of growing concern that Iraq may not get a new government for months after the U.S. drawdown, heralding a risk of increased violence as political tensions rise and insurgents seek to exploit the vacuum. Six people were killed in the latest violence, four of them Iranian pilgrims who died Monday when their bus was blown up in Diyala province.
The U.S. military reported the death of a U.S. soldier Sunday night when his patrol was attacked in the Diyala city of Baqubah.
Times staff writers Nadeem Hamid and Riyadh Mohammed contributed to this report.