That would signal an end to months of political paralysis in the country.

 

Nuri al-Maliki, Iraq's prime minister-designate, has reportedly finalised his plans for a unity government.

 

Mahmud al-Mashhadani, parliament speaker and a leading Sunni politician, told members of the parliament that he expected them to vote on a new cabinet in three days' time.

 

One deputy had asked him if the assembly's next session, scheduled for Saturday, would include a vote on the government.

 

"That's what we have from the prime minister's office," al-Mashhadani said. "We've had a note saying the prime minister wants to present his government to parliament on Saturday."

 

Last-minute deals

 

Government sources said al-Maliki hoped to complete the cabinet on Thursday, four days before a legal deadline.

 

Al-Maliki faces opposition within
his own political bloc 

Parliament must approve the appointments before Iraq's first full-term government since the US-led invasion can take office.

 

With most parties expected to be represented in cabinet, the vote is likely to be a formality.

 

Although Sunni, secular and other parties, including members of al-Maliki's own Shia Islamist bloc, said they were holding out for concessions, negotiators said a final deal was close.

 

"The government will hopefully be announced tomorrow or the day after," Baha al-Araji, a senior aide to Muqtada al-Sadr, an influential figure in the dominant Shia Alliance, said on Wednesday.

 

Security concerns

 

Al-Maliki has faced some of his toughest opposition from his own Alliance bloc.

 

One party in the Shia coalition walked out of the negotiations in protest at losing the oil ministry, which is now widely expected to go to another Alliance figure, Husain al-Shahristani, a nuclear scientist jailed under Saddam Hussein.

 

Former exile Ahmad Chalabi has also emerged as a strong candidate for another important post - in charge of the interior ministry.

 

Chalabi, a secular Shia, was once Washington's preferred Iraqi leader before falling out of favour.

 

Whoever takes over the security job faces the task of reining in dozens of armed groups linked to an array of political camps. Al-Maliki has said this is a priority in the new administration.