Iraq's top political leaders met Monday for the first time since inconclusive national elections in March. But the session, held in the Kurdish north, ended with little hint that they were on the verge of forming a new government.
The meeting, which included Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and his chief competitor, Iyad Allawi, amounted to an icebreaker for the leaders before two more sessions scheduled in Baghdad. If the talks go well, the sides would reach agreement on a prime minister, president and speaker of parliament and start the formal process of assembling a government in a parliamentary session Thursday.
If they fail to strike a deal, the stalemate could drag on for months.
As the politicians huddled, a string of explosions killed 28 people in the Shiite Muslim pilgrimage cities of Najaf and Karbala and the southern port city of Basra. The continued violence has only heightened Iraqis' disenchantment with the lack of political progress.
At Monday's 90-minute gathering, Iraqi leaders delivered speeches that politely underscored their differences. Their political blocs had been holding almost daily sessions in Baghdad to pave the way for the meetings. Despite the preparations, no one appeared ready to make significant compromises.
One official who attended the talks questioned whether anyone was capable of making concessions.
"If they agreed on the power-sharing, on the national reconciliation, on accepting each other, the groups could agree in five minutes; everything has been written [down] for a long time," the official said in reference to the months of talks among parties.
The official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the talks, dismissed the day's session as purely ceremonial and described the lunch of Iraqi cuisine as arguably the most meaningful achievement that day.
The Kurdistan Alliance, with at least 49 seats in parliament, has become in effect the kingmaker. The Kurdish group has refused to throw its weight behind Maliki, a Shiite Islamist who heads a coalition holding at least 148 seats in the 325-member parliament and is closest to forming a government.
The Kurdish region's president, Massoud Barzani, has refused to endorse a new government led by Maliki without the inclusion of Allawi's Iraqiya list, a secular bloc heavily backed by Sunnis that won the largest single share of parliamentary seats. Barzani, Iraqiya and smaller Shiite parties also have called for limiting the prime minister's powers for fear Maliki would use another four years in office to ensure a state dominated by his Shiite religious party, Dawa.
Despite their ambivalence toward Maliki, his opponents have not been able to successfully challenge the prime minister with an alternative candidate.
Maliki's supporters have said his powers are granted to him in the constitution and were needed when he worked to hold the country together during the sectarian war that raged a few years ago
Monday's session was also complicated by the quarrel between Iraqiya and the Kurds over who should be the president of Iraq: the Kurdish incumbent, Jalal Talabani, or Allawi. Iraqiya members believe that the post would guarantee a significant role for Allawi and serve as a check on Maliki as prime minister. The rancor over the presidency spilled out in news conferences after the talks as Kurds and Iraqiya officials insisted upon their group's right to the office.
The political stalemate has angered ordinary Iraqis who are frustrated by the continuing lack of security and poor basic services in their neighborhoods.
The violence Monday was alarming as it occurred in the relatively quite Shiite south. A car bomb killed eight Iranian pilgrims in Karbala, and a second attack killed another eight in Najaf. In Basra, 12 people died in a car bomb blast, security sources said.
One survivor in Karbala criticized Iraq's political leaders. "Where is the government? We faced all these hardships and danger and we went and elect them," Hossam Jabr said. "Eight months passed now! Where are they? I want to say something. Do they think about these people? Do they think about the children?"
Salman is a Times staff writer. Special correspondents Asso Ahmed in Irbil, Iraq, and Saad Fakhrildeen in Najaf, Iraq, contributed to this report.