ARBIL – Clasping his hands together in a sign of unity, a cheerful Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Shia-dominated United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), entered the hall in this Kurdish city amid applause. Al-Hakim was here to bring Shia groups from the south and Kurds from the north together in government.
"We struggled together against dictatorship, racism, and sectarianism, and we will be together in rebuilding the new Iraq," he told the hundreds of Kurds who had gathered there.
But despite the pleasant reception, past experiences and new doubts overshadow the process of forming government.
Al-Hakim is looking for more than partnership in government. He has made no secret of his bloc’s intention to expand the model of Kurdish autonomous rule to the southern parts of the country, where the Shias constitute the majority.
According to the partial results released by the Iraqi electoral commission, the religiously oriented UIA has so far won the largest chunk of the vote in the Dec. 15 election. But it has failed to gain the parliamentary majority needed to form the government alone.
Al-Hakim’s visit to the Iraqi Kurdistan region came as part of the UIA efforts to negotiate the shape of an Iraqi government.
Multiparty talks had been called at the Dukan resort near Sulaimaniya in Kurdistan last week on forming a coalition government, but the Sunni Arab and secular parties refused to come.
Sunni leaders had said earlier that they will not take part in any discussions on a coalition government until the results of the elections are investigated by an international committee. But this week they too came to Arbil to negotiate with Kurdish leaders.
Sunni participation is regarded as a critical step in overcoming insurgency and restoring stability to the country. "I think their broad participation in the December elections shows a readiness on their part to bring stability," Bukhari Abdullah, a candidate on the Kurdish list for the parliament told IPS.
As efforts to build a new ruling coalition intensify, Kurdish leaders say they have a number of conditions that must be met before they enter an alliance. These include primarily Kurd control of the oil-rich northern city Kirkuk, which also has a substantial Arab population.
"The important issues for us are those of Kirkuk and other articles of the Iraqi constitution ratified last October regarding Kurdish rights," Sa’di Ahmad Pira, a senior official of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the party of President Jalal Talabani, said in a statement.
Shias and Kurds came together in an interim coalition government after the previous election Jan. 30 last year. Sunnis had boycotted that election.
The coalition was marked by constant disputes between Kurds and the UIA over the administration of Shia Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. But according to some sources, Kurds have again agreed to accept Jaafari as prime minister.
"It is not at all a personal issue between us and Jaafari and we make agreement with UIA as a list, and not with a person," Pira said. Apart from Jaafari, there are five other candidates from the UIA running for premiership.
Sunnis disagree with both the Kurds and the Shias over any form of federalism that would give more power to Shia regions. "We reject federalism for the central and southern parts of Iraq because then it will be on a sectarian basis, but we agree with Kurdish federalism," Adnan al-Duleimi, head of the Sunni list, told media representatives in Arbil Monday.
Many Iraqis say what the country needs is consensus, not wrangling. Several of the leaders are working in that direction.
"We have agreed on the principles of establishing a broad-based government which includes all sides," Kurdish President Massoud Barzani said at a joint press conference with al-Hakim last week.