Iraq's prime minister on Saturday urged all rival parties to join in political talks and show the "flexiblity and realism" to make concessions toward ending the country's seven-month government impasse.
The appeal by Nouri al-Maliki _ who appears close to achieving his underdog bid to stay in power _ comes amid heavy U.S. pressure for his Shiite-led coalition to work out some power-sharing arrangement with the Sunni-backed bloc that placed first in March elections but short of a parliament majority.
"All of us, from all affiliations, have to sit together and talk and talk _ even if it takes longer _ until we reach a meeting point," the prime minister said, speaking to Sunni tribal leaders in western Baghdad. "We cannot reach that point without respect and showing readiness to be deal with the issues with flexibility and realism."
The remarks hint at growing confidence by al-Maliki that he's in a position to call the shots over possibly forming a new government and dividing up the key posts and Cabinet seats among the country's three main factions: majority Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.
Al-Maliki seems close to gaining a parliament majority and the right to begin putting together a new government after he won over a hard-line Shiite faction that once strongly opposed him. Now, his envoys are talking with Kurdish parties on a possible pact that would hand him comfortable control in the 325-seat parliament.
Washington worries that sidelining the Sunnis would unravel efforts at national reconciliation and lead to political battles that would stall priorities such as reconstruction and bringing in more foreign investment. The Sunni bloc placed first in March balloting, but have not been able to gain enough partners to hold sway over parliament.
Despite strong U.S. lobbying, it's unclear whether any sweeping Shiite-Sunni compromise can be reached. Sunni leaders have so far staunchly rejected the prospect of another al-Maliki term.
On Friday, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called the head of the Kurds' regional government, Massoud Barzani, to underscore the need for an inclusive Iraqi government. A White House statement said Biden reminded Barzani that the new government should reflect "the results of the election."
"The two agreed that all winning coalitions should be included in the new government," the statement said.
The Kurds, who control a semiautonomous area in northern Iraq, have emerged as the kingmakers for al-Maliki. But they have big demands in exchange for their backing _ including forcing Iraq to finally hold a mandated referendum to decide control of the important oil region around Kirkuk. Kurds see Kirkuk as part of their traditional territory, but they are challenged for influence by ethnic Turks and Sunni Arabs.
Another main U.S. concern is al-Maliki's alliance with a Shiite faction led by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who once led a major militia and lives in self-exile in Iran. Washington fears al-Sadr will seek key posts in exchange for his support, which could open the door to greater Iranian influence in Iraq and possibly temper the Iraqi government's pro-Western views.
Al-Maliki, however, chastised neighboring countries for trying to interfere in Iraq's slow political process. He did not cite specific countries, but Iran backs a heavy Shiite hand over Iraq's affairs while Sunni-dominated Syria and other Sunni Arab states favor giving a stronger voice to Iraq's minority Sunnis.
In the Saturday meeting, al-Maliki tried to reach out to Sunnis by heaping praise on the Sahwa, or Awakening Council, militias that joined U.S. troops in 2007 to battle al-Qaida. Hundreds of the fighters have been killed in revenge attacks since, and many believe they have been shunted aside by the Shiite-led government without proper pay or protections.
Al-Maliki called the Sunni militias "one of the best products of (Iraq's) national reconciliation and its blessings."
As evidence of the violence that continues to plague Sunni areas, gunmen wearing military uniforms killed three brothers who worked as government bodyguards Saturday near the former insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, police Maj. Hikmat al-Jumaili said.