Iraqi political leaders took a step closer Friday to unsnarling the nation's seven-month political gridlock, according to a key Kurdish negotiator who cited a tentative deal that would keep Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in power.
The possible agreement with Kurdish parties would give al-Maliki's Shiite-led coalition enough parliament seats to begin the potentially thorny process of picking a cabinet.
But any such pact is sure to anger Iraq's minority Sunni Arabs who face being alienated in the new government despite backing the winning political alliance in March parliamentary elections.
In exchange for their support, the Kurdish envoy said al-Maliki has promised to push ahead on an issue that is the Kurds' top priority _ laying the groundwork for helping Kurdish people legally reclaim lands they were pushed out of during Saddam Hussein's brutal Arabization campaign of the 1980s.
The Kurdish negotiator spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, said negotiations to break the political impasse recently began moving forward, but discussions have mainly focused on choosing the new leaders instead of how to distribute power among all parties.
"The issue needs concessions from all blocs _ including the Kurds," Zebari said in an interview aired Friday on satellite TV channel Al-Arabiya. "There was no goodwill in the negotiations, and until now they were frozen."
He cautioned: "We are not very close to the final solution."
The tentative agreement is sure to inflame Sunni Arabs in Ninevah, Kirkuk and Diyala provinces who refuse to give up the oil-rich land. It was not immediately clear how much influence _ if any _ Sunni lawmakers would have in a committee that the negotiator said al-Maliki will create to begin that process.
U.S. diplomats and military officials have long worried the Sunni-Kurd fault line will touch off a new civil war in Iraq.
The Kurds control a semiautonomous northern enclave and emerged as the pivotal votes in the political morass that has stymied Iraq from picking new leaders for more than seven months.
A Sunni-backed coalition led by a former prime minister, Ayad Allawi, narrowly won March elections, yet without enough clout to control parliament and oust al-Maliki, leaving the country in political limbo. Al-Maliki needs the Kurds to put him over the top.
Eventual Kurdish support for al-Maliki has been long anticipated _ but only after being assured that the prime minister will call for a referendum to decide control of the oil-rich Kirkuk region that is now under Baghdad's sway.
It's still not clear when a final deal between al-Maliki and the Kurds will be reached, and a strong Sunni backlash could drag on the crisis for months.
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley on Friday warned against the dangers of an Iraqi government that sidelines any of the major political factors.
"We want to see the emergence of an inclusive government and we believe that there are a number of blocs that have received a significant amount of support from the Iraqi people," Crowley said. "As Iraq forms a government, it should be cautious regarding the particular role that any one element will play."