"The meeting will be on 16 March and we agreed to continue meetings [on a government] and hope to reach an agreement by then," Barham Salih said on Sunday.

"If we don't reach an agreement then the National Assembly will begin its work and discussions will continue inside the assembly."

Iraqi politicians have been struggling to form a government after elections for a national assembly on 30 January, which were narrowly won by a Shia alliance.

The wrangling over top government posts has delayed the first meeting of the National Assembly for five weeks so far.

The Shia United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) has named Ibrahim al-Jafari as its candidate for prime minister, but he needs the backing of a Kurdish coalition, which finished second in the elections.

Post sharing

"We decided to set that date because all the signs indicate that an agreement will be ready before the first session," said Jawad Maliky, senior member of the Shia United Iraqi Alliance  list and second in command in the Dawa party to al-Jafari.

Allawi has affirmed his interest
in keeping his job as premier

The UIA won 141 of the 275 seats in the new national assembly, while the leading Kurdish coalition came a clear second in the election.

The Shia alliance has held talks with Kurdish leaders this week on the share out of top government posts and formed a committee to discuss Kurdish demands. "We have agreed on the principals," Maliky said. 

A two-thirds majority is required in the new assembly to elect the president and two vice presidents who will in turn appoint a prime minister giving the Kurdistan Alliance's 77 MPs, a key kingmaking role.

Outgoing interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, whose list scored third in the recent elections, has also affirmed his interest in keeping his job and has said he is in contact with political leaders and factions of all stripes.

Fears of strife

First order of business for the new parliament will be to elect its speaker and then for the assembly to vote on a presidential council (president and two deputies) which in turn will choose a prime minister, who then form a cabinet.

"We have also reached out to Sunnis, who had a weak participation in the elections"

Jawad Maliky,
UIA senior member

Large numbers of Iraq's once powerful Sunni community boycotted the vote, raising fears of sectarian strife if the government did not prove to be representative.

"We have also reached out to Sunnis, who had a weak participation in the elections. They are likely to present prominent names to participate in the next government and we welcome that," Maliky said.

He dismissed speculation that the alliance was not sufficiently cohesive to hold together, saying that "any talk of cracks in our alliance are inaccurate".