BAGHDAD, May 3 (Reuters) Iraqi politicians involved in negotiations on the formation of a new government said today that an agreement on the top five ministries is close.
The main political blocs hope to overcome wrangling over positions to form a government of national unity that will attempt to tackle sectarian violence and the battered economy and repair a crippled infrastructure to provide basic services.
Nuri al-Maliki, the prime minister-designate from the dominant Shi'ite Islamist Alliance, has until May 22 to present a cabinet to parliament -- a month from his nomination, which ended months of political stalemate after an election in December.
Maliki has said he may need only two weeks and several negotiators said they were looking to a possible deal next week.
After an initial demand to retain under Sunni control the post of defence minister, the main Sunni bloc, the Accordance Front, said it would now rather have the finance portfolio.
''We made this demand so we can guarantee the promises we were given. We want to remain influential in political, security and also economic authorities,'' said Abid-Nasir al-Janabi, a Front official involved in negotiations.
The Shi'ites and Kurds hope that by drawing minority Sunnis into government they can defuse a Sunni insurgency that has killed thousands of Iraqis in the past three years, as well as calm violence by pro-government Shi'ite and Kurdish groups.
POINT SYSTEM Political blocs say they are using a complex points system based primarily on results from December's election to determine how many ministries are allocated to each grouping.
Khudheyir al-Khuzai, a member of the Alliance, which holds just under half the seats in parliament, said Kurds were insisting on keeping the foreign ministry, while Shi'ites hoped to keep the key, controversial interior portfolio. The secular list of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi might now get defence.
''The United Iraqi Alliance hopes it will take the Interior Ministry,'' Khuzai said on the sidelines of today's session of parliament. ''Defence may go to (Allawi's) Iraqi List.'' Khuzai said there were many meetings every day in an effort to form the government: ''The deadline to form the government is May 22, but Nuri al-Maliki has set himself a target of May 9.
''We are willing to work 20 hours a day to achieve this.'' Allawi's, cross-sectarian Iraqi List has said ministries relating to security must be run by secular Iraqis to defuse the increasing sectarian tension.
Control of the Interior Ministry by Shi'ite Islamist Bayan Jabor over the past year has stirred complaints from Sunnis that police are behind sectarian killings.
The existence of three broad main groups -- Shi'ites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds -- has prompted a system whereby the president, parliamentary speaker and prime minister each have two deputies, allowing each group to share out power. However, efforts to give Allawi's group a deputy premiership has complicated matters.
Another Shi'ite Alliance member of parliament, Haider al- Ibadi, said he was optimistic about a settlement, despite what he called high demands by the minority Kurds: ''We hope to settle all these issues in the coming days.'' One possibility was that the sensitive security ministries might be handed to non-partisan technocrats: ''We hope to bring the Interior and Defence ministries out of the political quota,'' he said. ''If we can choose ministers that can perform well then we would succeed without resorting to quotas.'' The U.S. ambassador, among others, has stressed that key ministries should not be the fiefdom of sectarian loyalists.
REUTERS SI PC2120