Iraq's political bazaar is branching out.
Envoys for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his chief rival crossed paths in Kuwait this week. Iraq's deputy prime minister just returned from Turkey and a top Shiite powerbroker and others have beaten a path to Syria recently to discuss Iraq's seven-month political logjam since elections in March.
The trips reflect the possible end games in motion on all sides and the need to test reactions across a region with sharply mixed views on al-Maliki's Shiite-led coalition and its gambits to remain in power. They run from clear backing in Iran to outright concern in the Sunni heartland of the Gulf and elsewhere.
U.S. officials, meanwhile, are urging for a speedy resolution. There's fear the political vacuum _ which still could continue for months _ is encouraging insurgent attacks and rattling potential foreign investors.
In central Baghdad on Friday, more than 3,000 demonstrators joined in a rally to demand an end to the deadlock, chanting "we cannot wait any longer." One banner carried the message: "Redo the elections if you can't form the government"
A possible way out of the political gridlock could be finally taking shape.
Al-Maliki appears close to nailing down enough allies to begin forming a government. It's been an uphill fight since his coalition placed second behind a Sunni-backed bloc, which has bragging rights as victor yet cannot muster a parliamentary majority through alliances with other groups.
But al-Maliki, too, still needs a boost to get him over the top.
At the moment, his most likely partners are the Kurds, who control an enclave in the north. The Kurds are taking their time, however, and it's unclear when they will make their political intentions known.
They want firm guarantees in exchange for their support, including a referendum to decide control of the oil-rich region around Kirkuk. The area lies just outside the Kurds' semiautonomous zone, but they are part of a three-way contest for influence along with ethnic Turks and central authorities in Baghdad.
The Kurds have scheduled high-level talks with al-Maliki's allies for Friday.
They have already met in preliminary rounds. A key al-Maliki adviser, Abdul-Halim al-Zuhairi, told The Associated Press that the early talks with Kurds have included the Kirkuk referendum and demands for greater aid to Kurds who suffered under attacks by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s.
A possible sticking point, however, is over Kurdish proposals for what amounts to a pull-the-plug clause: a pact that any future government would have to fall if Kurds withdrew their support, said al-Zuhairi, who led a delegation this week to Qatar and Kuwait to discuss al-Maliki's bid to remain in office.
He said as they were leaving Kuwait on Wednesday, they came across a team from al-Maliki's rival Sunni-bloc arriving for talks.
Al-Zuhairi's delegation was trying to gauge reactions to a possible second al-Maliki term among Sunni Gulf leaders. The other group was possibly doing some advance groundwork on their strategy.
Even if the Sunni-backed bloc fails to keep al-Maliki from staying in office, they will likely lobby for key positions in roles such as overseeing security and foreign affairs. They also seek to reduce the powers of the prime minister's office.
Kuwait factors heavily in all political discussions in Iraq over demands for $25 billion in U.N.-mandated reparations for Saddam's 1990 invasion.
Qatar, meanwhile, is a good Sunni sounding board. It's both a solid Western ally and an emerging political powerhouse in the Gulf. Its rulers also see themselves as mediators on regional face-offs, including the deep Gulf suspicions and worries over growing Iranian influence through channels such as Iraq's majority Shiites.
To the north, Turkey also has keen interest in Iraq's political shakeout.
Turkish companies have been eager investors in the Kurdish region and Turkey carries important sway over Iraq's Turkomen, one of the groups involved in the competition over Kirkuk. Turkish security forces, meanwhile, have repeatedly crossed the border over the decades to attack Kurdish rebels seeking greater autonomy in southeastern Turkey.
Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has held several rounds of postelection talks with Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a backer of the Sunni-bloc leader, Ayad Allawi.
On Wednesday, another Allawi supporter _ Iraq's deputy prime minister, Rafia al-Issawi _ told a news conference in Turkey's capital Ankara that "external sources" are responsible for Iraq's political limbo. It's an apparent reference to Iran and its ties to Shiite parties, which have banded together and seem close to blocking Allawi from leading the next government.
But not all Shiite parties have fallen behind al-Maliki. Chief among them is the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a powerful group closely linked to Iran.
It leaves open room that they could still be working on an alternative choice for prime minister, possibly a Supreme Council ally, Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi.
The head of the Supreme Council, Ammar al-Hakim, was in Damascus earlier this week to meet with Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has had tense relations with al-Maliki's government and would likely favor a new face leading Iraq.
Washington has not thrown its support behind any candidate, but has urged for a government that represents all Iraq's groups.
It's clear, however, that U.S. officials are in somewhat of a bind.
They are tired of the political standstill. At the same time, they are worried that al-Maliki's partnership with a hard-line Shiite faction led by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr would open the door for direct Iranian influence in Iraqi affairs and derail pro-Western security and commercial policies.
Al-Maliki met Wednesday with the State Department's No. 3 diplomat, William Burns, and a senior American trade envoy, Francisco Sanchez, who urged for Iraq to settle the impasse.
"I think it's in the Iraqi people's interest to be able to form a government as soon as possible," Sanchez told reporters.
Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Bushra Juhi contributed to this report.