|Allawi's Iraqiya finished first in March 7 elections and insists on its right to form the government [Reuters]
Nearly seven months after elections were held in Iraq, an important Shia bloc has thrown its support behind Nouri al-Maliki, the incumbent prime minister, as its choice for premiership.
The announcement on Friday by the National Alliance (NA), which still falls short of an absolute majority in the 325-member Council of Representatives, is the first sign of a possible breakthrough after months of stand-off between Iraq's major political parties.
However, two main NA members, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) and al-Fadila party distanced themselves from the announcement, cutting 27 seats from the alliance’s total number of seats. The alliance between al-Maliki and NA now holds 132 seats instead of 159.
The National Alliance has chosen al-Maliki as its candidate for the premiership," coalition member Falah Fayadh said at a news conference. He said that the coalition's members voted "by consensus," but did not elaborate.
Al-Maliki's State of Law Alliance had finished second in the March 7 polls, two seats behind the Iraqiya bloc of ex-premier Iyad Allawi. But al-Maliki joined forces with the Iraqi National Alliance (INA) in early May.
The newly-formed NA held on-and-off negotiations for several months as members quarrelled over the selection of a candidate for premier. The INA had named Adel Abdel Mahdi, Iraq's vice-president, as its choice, but al-Maliki eked out a victory.
On Friday, Iraq tied the world record for the longest period without a permanent government after elections, with its 208 day impasse matching the time it took The Netherlands to name a prime minister in 1977.
Al-Maliki, for the second time owes his nomination to the Sadrists, a Shia bloc loyal to the controversial Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr.
Al-Sadr gave his support to al-Maliki's nomination in 2006, but the two men grew apart after al-Sadr followers and militia leaders were thrown in jail with some still in custody.
Al-Sadr's consent to al-Maliki’s nomination has come as a surprise to observers, as the bloc has been strongly opposing to his nomination.
Despite the relative victory, al-Maliki will face an uphill struggle to convince others to work with him to form the next government.
"I do not expect, under current circumstances, that a government will be in place before the end of the year," Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group said.
"Even if agreement can be found soon on the prime minister, this still leaves other key portfolios to be filled, and then the new leaders would still have to discuss the ruling coalition's governing programme."
Some factions from the Shia alliance stayed away from Friday's meeting, politicians said, signalling a rising opposition to al-Maliki from within.
Disagreements over whether or not to support al-Maliki raised speculation of a possible rupture within the National Alliance bloc, even after Friday's nomination.
Al-Maliki will need to start talks with other political parties, mainly the cross-sectarian Iraqiya coalition and the Kurdish alliance, to form the next government.
Led by former prime minister Iyad Allawi, the Iraqiya coalition, which won the most seats in the parliament with strong support from Sunnis and seculars, has said it would not join any government headed by al-Maliki.
Dhafir al-Ani, a member of Iraqiya, said his coalition would not let go of his constitutional right to form the government.
"We won the biggest number of seats in the elections. Our right to form the government is authentic. The fact that other parties are trying to go around the constitution and interpret it as they wish, would take away from us our right to form the government as the party which won the biggest number of seats," he told Al Jazeera.
Al-Maliki sent a letter to Iraq's supreme court on the eve of the announcement of elections results, asking for its interpretation of the phrase "the biggest bloc" mentioned in the Iraqi constitution.
The court ruled that the "biggest bloc" means the bloc with the biggest number of seats at the time of the first session of the new parliament.
The court's ruling meant the party who wins the elections might loose its right to form the government if two or more loosing parties joined together and formed an alliance with bigger number of seats from the party which came first in the elections.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies