Maliki's chief Shiite rivals choose candidate to vie for his job

After months of bickering, a main political rival of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki named a candidate to head the next Iraqi government, a move that poses a new obstacle to the incumbent and is likely to further complicate formation of the government.

Maliki has been banking on disagreements among his competitors to allow him to win a second term. But the Iraqi National Alliance coalition named a current vice president, Adel Abdul Mehdi, as its choice.

The alliance includes two of the country's main Shiite Muslim political factions, Mehdi's Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and cleric Muqtada Sadr's movement.

"The powers of the INA met today and agreed to present Mr. Adel Abdul Mehdi as a candidate for the prime minister position, hoping this step will facilitate the task of the National Alliance to solve the crisis of the formation of the government," the group said in a statement.

The INA, which won 70 parliamentary seats in March elections, formed a broader coalition called the National Alliance with Maliki's State of Law slate, which won 89. The alliance had given them the largest share of seats in the next parliament and, in theory, the right to form the government.

But the broad coalition has proved to be a partnership in name only. The INA's factions have vehemently opposed giving Maliki a second term, but had not been able to agree on an alternative. On Friday, members of the Sadr faction lifted their objection to Mehdi, saying they would not veto any candidate.

Mehdi had a colorful past as a Baathist and a Maoist before becoming a Shiite Islamist politician. He served as finance minister beginning in 2004 before going on to serve in his current post. He has cultivated relations with the United States and Iran. Last year, his reputation took a blow when members of his personal security team were implicated in a Baghdad bank robbery.

Mehdi has largely bounced back from the episode. He holds a seat in parliament, and after months-long paralysis that has allowed violence to increase, he is demanding that lawmakers begin meeting regularly.

It is not clear how the National Alliance will choose between Maliki and Mehdi. The sides could take weeks to devise a mechanism for voting. The INA's nomination of Mehdi also foils any hopes Maliki had that his rivals would be unable to agree on a credible alternative.

Mehdi's nomination also goes against U.S. expectations. American officials here had largely discounted Mehdi's chances of becoming prime minister, saying Sadr's backers would never support him.

Meanwhile, the U.S. role in the government formation process has come in for criticism. Members of secular politician Iyad Allawi's Iraqiya list, which won two more seats than Maliki's, complain that American officials have pressured Allawi to take the position of head of a new national security council while allowing Maliki to stay on as prime minister.

Salman is a staff writer in The Times' Baghdad Bureau.

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