BAGHDAD // A political breakthrough this week has kept a fragile power-sharing deal alive, but major hurdles remain to Iraq forming a national unity government.
Rivals Nouri al Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, and Ayad Allawi, his main challenger for the job of premier, held talks on Tuesday and, it seems, finally agreed that Mr Allawi would join an al Maliki-led administration.
The deal the two men struck in a 90-minute meeting confirms a similar arrangement previously outlined in November, which led to Mr al Maliki being nominated as prime minister after more than eight months of political deadlock, according to members of Mr Allawi's Iraqiyya bloc.
Since last month, however, that deal had teetered on the brink of collapse, with Mr Allawi threatening to withdraw from a unity government after accusing his rival of reneging on power-sharing terms.
Once again, it now seems the agreement is on, with Mr Allawi to be made head of a yet-to-be formed "national council".
However, significant questions remain about exactly what powers this council - it has not yet even been formally named - will have. If it does not satisfy Iraqiyya, the bloc can still pull out of the proposed administration.
Faiza al Obeidi, an Iraqiyya MP, said: "Our only concern is that the [national] council will be strong and powerful because it will be monitoring the performance of government, that is what we are discussing. We want to have a powerful say in decision making. We want to build that into the system that is offered to the parliament in the coming days."
Negotiations continue, with parliament due to discuss the matter in tomorrow's session. Parliament will make the final decision on exactly what status the council is to have, and it will require a constitutional revision. Amending the constitution involves navigating a labyrinth of parliamentary procedure, something likely to take many months. Until all of that is complete, the council will have no powers at all, regardless of any agreements between rival blocs.
Iraqiyya continues to insist the council will have the ability to make decisions in critical areas such as security and foreign policy, and will therefore be able to act as a check on prime ministerial powers. Mr al Maliki's supporters dispute that, and are adamant it will be limited to a consultancy role.
After Tuesday's meeting, Mr Allawi spoke in positive terms about their discussions but pointedly did not confirm that he had accepted a post in the Iraqi cabinet. Analysts say that reflected lingering mistrust between the two men, and gives Mr Allawi room to manoeuvre out of the deal if the council turns out to be toothless.
"Iraqiyya will face many problems with the national council," said Ala Allawi, an independent political analyst from the city of Wasit. "Their opponents do not want them to have any real power, just the appearance of power."
Running on a cross-sectarian nationalist platform in the March elections, Iraqiyya won the ballot, narrowly beating Mr Maliki, at the head of a Shiite alliance, into second place. Neither group had enough parliamentary seats to form a government alone and Mr Maliki proved more adept at patching together a coalition, eventually winning the support of other Shiite groups and the Kurds.
Iraqi critics of Mr Maliki say he was only able to form an alliance, and thereby remain in office for a second term, after Iranian intervention pushed the king-making Sadrist movement into backing him.
Iraqiyya, which enjoys close links to Arab countries, has been hostile to Iranian involvement.
According to Mr Allawi, the political analyst, Tehran is continuing efforts to marginalise Iraqiyya and to boost its own Iraqi allies, among them Mr al Maliki, to increase its sway over Iraqi affairs.
"Iran wants to stop Iraqiyya and Maliki is trying to strike a balance so that the council has no real powers," he said. "He wants to make sure that whatever powers it has will be offset against the powers of ministries, so it will not be able to exert any real influence."
It is not only Iraqiyya that is struggling to carve out a position of strength in the next administration. The Kurdish alliance is also trying hard to define a powerful role for itself.
That has been made difficult because the presidency, held once again by Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, no longer enjoys the constitutional powers it had between 2005 and November 2010. During that period, the president could veto prime ministerial decisions approved by parliament, a power that has now expired, removing a major check on Mr al Maliki's ability to set policy.
The Kurdish alliance is disputing this interpretation of the constitution and has lodged a request with the federal supreme court, seeking clarification on the president's role.
"We are not worried about it. The courts will decide on the president's powers in the coming days," said Mahmoud Othman, a leading member of the Kurdish bloc. "Whatever the court's decision, we will be happy with, we are certain the president is going to be a powerful position."
Under constitutional procedures, Mr al Maliki has until December 25 to name his cabinet but his political allies have suggested he will do so two days earlier. Until then he is deciding how to divide various ministerial posts to satisfy his coalition supporters.