Six weeks after the release of results from the landmark January 30 elections, Iraq still has no new government, but talk of a breakthrough is imminent.

“We have set next Thursday (March 24) as a preliminary date for the national assembly to reconvene,” said Jawad al-Maliky, a member of the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance (UIA).

“We have agreed on the principles of the government, but we do not have yet a final deal on the make-up of the government. We hope that will happen before the assembly meets.”

Fawzi Hariri, an aide to foreign minister and Kurdish negotiator Hoshyar Zebari, suggested: “Within a week to 10 days the whole thing should be done.”

The new parliament held its first session on Wednesday.

Mr Zebari said the Kurdistan Alliance, with 77 seats in the 275-member parliament, had finally agreed on the terms of forming a coalition government with the UIA, the biggest victor with 146 seats.

“All the principles have been agreed upon by all the parties.”

Zebari’s faction of the Kurdish list, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), had pressed last-minute demands on the Shiites over the status of the northern, ethnically divided oil city of Kirkuk and their peshmerga militia.

The deadlock contributed to the failure this week of MPs to choose an executive body or to schedule a second session.

The sides have drafted a written agreement, which is meant to assure the Kurds that their virtual autonomy in the north after years of suffering under former dictator Saddam Hussein will be protected.

It also commits the next government to taking concrete steps under Iraq’s interim constitution to solving the problem of Kirkuk, from which Saddam expelled tens of thousands of Kurds.

“The issue of Kirkuk has been addressed satisfactorily based on procedures and measures mapped out in the transitional law,” Mr Zebari said.

He said the new government is committed to resettling displaced Kurds in the city and arbitrating property disputes between the Kurds and the Arabs who were brought into Kirkuk to replace them.

But the sides will ink the written agreement, formalising their alliance, only after wooing other parties to sign as well, Zebari’s aide, Mr Hariri said.

The Kurds and Shiites have started courting the secular ex-Baathist Iyad Allawi and leading politicians like outgoing Sunni president Sheikh Ghazi
al-Yawar.

The UIA and Kurdistan Alliance met Allawi’s Iraqi list on Thursday and presented it with the agreement.

“We asked the Iraqi list to give us their vision and idea on whether they will participate in the new government or not. They have given us a positive response,” Mr Zebari said, adding that their participation now hinged on cabinet posts offered to them.

A senior member of Allawi’s list, Imad Shibib, confirmed the talks were progressing.

One stumbling block is finding ministerial posts for the Sunni Arabs, who had been the ruling elite for most of Iraq’s modern history. The embittered minority is seen as fuelling the insurgency and widely boycotted the elections.

“It’s neither in our interest or yours that you do not take part in the political process, because your absence will perpetuate the occupation and terror and will bring down the house on everyone,” UIA-allied cleric Sadreddin al-Kubanji said in his weekly sermon in Najaf.

Meanwhile, the group of Iraq’s Al-Qaeda front-man, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing on Thursday that killed two people and wounded 15, including six US soldiers, in Mosul.

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