Iraqi Shiite bloc names new candidate for PM, further complicating govt. formation process

BAGHDAD (AP) — A powerful Iranian-backed Shiite bloc put forward its own candidate for prime minister Friday, further complicating Iraq's fractured political scene as the country stumbled into month six without a new government.

The March 7 parliamentary vote produced no clear winner, setting up a contentious fight between the Sunni-backed bloc of Ayad Allawi and the Shiite prime minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law coalition. Allawi narrowly defeated al-Maliki in the vote, but both men claim they have the mandate to form a new government.

The Iraqi National Alliance, a wide-ranging Shiite religious alliance, added a third man to the political wrangling on Friday by naming Adel Abdul-Mahdi, Iraq's Shiite vice president, their candidate for the job.

The INA is currently in a shaky coalition with al-Maliki's State of Law bloc, primarily because some figures within the Alliance are fiercely opposed to al-Maliki keeping his post. However, by putting forward their own candidate, the INA is not seeking to break up the alliance with the State of Law, but rather to extend the negotiation process and pressure the party to dump al-Maliki as its candidate.

"This is all really an attempt by INA to put pressure on State of Law to throw al-Maliki under the bus," said Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq analyst at the International Crisis Group. "That will only happen when State of Law has no other choice."

The INA, which includes followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, vehemently opposes al-Maliki staying on as prime minister primarily because Al-Maliki jailed thousands of al-Sadr supporters during U.S.-Iraqi bruising offensives in al-Sadr's strongholds of Basra and Baghdad's Sadr City.

Officials from both parties in the INA have voiced other objections to al-Maliki retaining his post, including poor relations with the Arab world and a tendency to act without consulting others outside his inner circle, pushing his loyalists into government posts and appointing members of the armed forces loyal to him.

There are few hints at the likely makeup of a new government as backroom negotiations drag on, increasing frustrations among Iraqis over the political stalemate and raising fears that militants will exploit the power vacuum to launch attacks.

Al-Sadr, the hardline Shiite cleric who's core goal is ending the U.S. presence in Iraq, warned the Iraqi security forces against working with the remaining American troops in the country.

About 50,000 U.S. soldiers remain in Iraq, primarily training Iraqi security forces and helping track down and fight extremists, although U.S. officials say the American combat mission has formally ended.

In a statement read at Friday prayers in mosques across Iraq, al-Sadr, who is based in Iran, extended support to Iraq's police and soldiers, as long as they don't fight alongside American forces.

Al-Sadr's Mahdi militia battled American forces in two major uprisings since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

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Associated Press writer Rebecca Santana contributed to this report.

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