BAGHDAD // After eight months of crippling political deadlock, Iraq may be on the brink of forming a new government with the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, at its head.
The outlines of a deal, reached after Mr al Maliki appeared finally to win the backing of a parliamentary majority yesterday, came as at least four people were killed in Baghdad in a series of coordinated bomb attacks on Christian neighbourhoods.
With the Christian community still reeling from a church massacre less than two weeks ago, 11 blasts in less than an hour rocked three mainly Christian enclaves in the Iraqi capital yesterday morning, injuring 20 people and demolishing homes.
Iraq has been without a new government since elections in March split power between Mr al Maliki's State of Law alliance and his chief rival, Ayad Allawi's Iraqiyya bloc. Neither won sufficient parliamentary seats to form an administration, leaving them struggling to find allies for a multi-party coalition.
Yesterday, after months of repeated setbacks, Mr al Maliki seemed to have done just that, winning consent from the 163 members of parliament required to start the process of forming a new government.
Politicians from Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite-backed groups, including a possible 30-seat breakaway faction from inside Iraqiyya, indicated they would support the prime minister in today's scheduled session of parliament.
If they fulfil that pledge Mr al Maliki will have the clout to nominate a new parliamentary speaker, the first procedural step that must be taken before his own name is put forward for a second term as prime minister.
It remains to be seen how Iraqiyya will respond under these circumstances, and whether the bloc, which is deeply divided, will fracture entirely. Officially, at least, it has not agreed to join in a broad national unity government of the sort now favoured by the US and Arab states.
But with a majority in parliament behind him, Mr al Maliki will be able to push ahead and create an administration without Iraqiyya.
There are strong indications that senior Iraqiyya members have now decided that regardless of the wishes of Mr Allawi, their leader and a trenchant critic of the prime minister, they prefer siding with an al Maliki-led government to languishing in opposition for four years.
While Iraq is now closer to forming a new government than at any point in the last eight months, it is impossible to rule out further delays in the process and, with no more than verbal agreements reported between the various factions, Mr al Maliki's coalition may turn out to be stillborn. Today's parliament session will be the first real test of its mettle.
As the political bargaining gathered pace yesterday, Christians again found themselves in the firing line.
Al Qa'eda in Iraq, which claimed responsibility for the hostage siege of October 31, when 56 congregation members were killed in Our Lady of Salvation Church, had vowed to continue attacks on Christians.
Although there was no immediate claim of responsibility, yesterday's bombings were the militants making good on that threat, security sources said.
"All the evidence points to al Qa'eda again," an official in Iraq's interior ministry said. "We believe al Qa'eda is currently focused on the Christians."
The official said senior government members, including Mr al Maliki, held an emergency meeting yesterday specifically addressing security measures for Christians.
"We have new orders from the prime minister to carry out a major new security plan for Christians," he said. "We are working very hard on this, we will stop these attacks but it is not simple."
Some Iraqis said the huge international response to the church massacre had fuelled an extremist campaign of violence, designed to force Christians out of the country.
"The church attack echoed across the world, and we've seen European countries open their doors to Iraqi Christians since," the interior ministry official said. "That reaction has encouraged al Qa'eda to keep pushing until all the Christians leave."
In the aftermath of the church siege, France said it would give medical treatment and asylum to some of the wounded. Archbishop Athanasios Dawood, a senior Iraqi cleric who now lives in London, advised other Christians to leave the country, warning Islamic militants would kill them off if they stayed.
Other members of Iraq's Christian hierarchy have not backed that call, however. The Chaldean Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, Iraq's leading Catholic figure, has urged the country's Christians to stay put, rather than cede their homeland to the militants. Catholic officials estimate that more than a million Christians have already fled the country since the US-led invasion in 2003.
Imad Youhanna, a Christian MP, said the government had again failed to protect the community. He also urged western nations not to grant blanket asylum to Iraqi Christians, fearing it would result only in the rapid exodus that al Qa'eda hopes to achieve.
"If European countries and the international community don't try to keep the Christian community here, Iraq will be emptied of Christians within a year," he said. "We need the Iraqi government to protect Christians, and we need them to stay."