BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's parliament elects a new speaker on Monday, eight months after an inconclusive election, in a move that could force Sunni forces to join a Shi'ite-Kurd alliance in a national unity government or risk falling apart.
The cross-sectarian Iraqiya alliance of former premier Iyad Allawi said on Thursday it might boycott Monday's session, called to try to break a political deadlock that has stoked tensions in Iraq as U.S. troops prepare to depart.
But incumbent Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shi'ite allies and the Kurdish lawmakers who appear set to back him for a new term may be able to muster a quorum without Iraqiya.
They may even be helped in that by a group of Iraqiya lawmakers who disagree with its steadfast refusal to support Maliki for a second term, and also by another bloc of mainly Sunni lawmakers who seem willing to ally themselves with him.
"We are not ready to delay the formation of the government any longer than this and we are with anyone who can get half of the parliament plus one," said one of the dissenting Iraqiya parliamentarians, Ahmed al-Ureibi. Others shared his stance. Deciding which faction gets the post of speaker is the first piece of a jigsaw puzzle that could lead to the selection of a president and prime minister, though not necessarily right away.
The posts are expected to be divided along ethno-sectarian lines, a sign of the deep divisions that run through Iraq 7-1/2 years after the U.S.-led invasion triggered ferocious sectarian warfare between once dominant Sunnis and majority Shi'ites.
Maliki, a Shi'ite, and President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, appear to have enough support to secure their reappointments.
They want the speaker post to go to a Sunni in Iraqiya, which won two more seats in the March 7 election than Maliki's bloc after gaining strong support among minority Sunnis.
U.S. officials fear excluding Iraqiya from the government could anger the Sunni voters who supported it and pour new fuel on a weakened but still lethal insurgency.
A siege of a Catholic church and a barrage of bombings around Baghdad has killed more than 100 people in the past few days, reminding Iraqis of the fragile state of their war-damaged nation and putting pressure on politicians to act.
Depending on the outcome of talks in the coming days, several scenarios are possible on Monday.
-- A multi-bloc deal on a national unity government is agreed and Iraqiya presents a candidate for speaker. Maliki takes the prime ministership and Talabani is reappointed.
In this scenario, Maliki's powers as prime minister are diluted by giving Allawi or others in Iraqiya roles with expanded authority over security, economics and foreign affairs.
-- Iraqiya boycotts parliament but rebel MPs present their own speaker candidate. This could cause an explosive fissure in Iraqiya that would reverberate through the Sunni community.
-- Iraqiya boycotts parliament and persuades internal dissenters to toe the line. Maliki's allies then select a speaker from the Sunni Tawafuq bloc or outgoing Interior Minister Jawad Bolani's Unity of Iraq list.
In the latter case, the most likely candidate for speaker is Ayad al-Samarai, who has held the post before and is respected.
An aide to Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, a senior Iraqiya leader, acknowledged a boycott could end up costing the bloc. But he said the person initially selected as speaker might only be temporary and Iraqiya could strike a deal later.
"This is to pressure Iraqiya and embarrass us," he said.
Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim; Writing by Michael Christie; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton