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Anti-American Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr took a rare, public step into the political arena Monday, meeting in neighboring Syria with the man directly challenging Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for his office.
The talks between al-Sadr, who is nominally allied with al-Maliki, and former premier Ayad Allawi, who heads the heavily Sunni-backed Iraqiya coalition, appeared to be as much about showing al-Maliki that al-Sadr is keeping his options open as it was about any firm political agreement between the two men in the offing.
Al-Sadr rarely travels outside of his home base in Iran, where he lives in self-imposed exile. His followers won 39 seats in the 325-seat parliament in Iraq's national election in March, giving him considerable sway over who becomes the next prime minister.
Following the ballot, al-Sadr joined a coalition with al-Maliki's list, but the deep-rooted hatred many in the Sadrist camp feel toward the prime minister — who's jailed thousands of their supporters — has stalled any further development of their alliance.
In Damascus, al-Sadr and Allawi appeared complimentary of each other following their meeting — a shocking development considering the past animosity between the two and a clear signal in Iraq's rough-and-tumble political scene that all options are on the table when it comes to forming a new government.
One of al-Sadr's core political beliefs is his unwavering opposition to the presence of American troops in Iraq, and when Allawi was prime minister, al-Sadr viewed him as little more than a pawn of the Americans.
Allawi, who is Shiite but garners much of his support from Iraq's Sunni minority, was prime minister in 2004 when American forces battled Sadrist supporters in the streets and cemetery of the holy city of Najaf in a battle that only ended with a cease-fire brokered by Iraq's most revered Shiite figure, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
But the two leaders' appeared to put aside their differences in the meeting that was arranged by the Syrian president. In pictures, the pair sat side by side, with Allawi in his business suit and al-Sadr in his flowing robes and black turban.
"The meeting was positive and fruitful," al-Sadr said. "The nicest thing I've found in the hearts of the Iraqiya block was their love for the Iraqi people."
Speaking at a separate press conference, Allawi said the two sides agreed on the need to "speed up forming the Iraqi government."
Whether or not the meeting will result in any solid political alliance between the former adversaries is unclear. But for al-Sadr, the meeting sends a clear signal to al-Maliki that their union is on shaky ground. Allawi, meanwhile, scored significant political points in making inroads with Shiite political parties.
Iraq is now in its fifth month without a government since the inconclusive March 7 elections. Allawi's Iraqiya bloc won 91 seats compared to 89 for al-Maliki's coalition, but neither won the 163-seat majority necessary to govern.
As the political wrangling for allies draws out, insurgents have continued their deadly attacks in what appears to be an attempt to take advantage of the political vacuum to re-ignite sectarian tensions.
Insurgent attacks killed nine people across Iraq Monday.
In the day's worst violence, a car bomb exploded near a restaurant and coffee shop in Baqouba, a one-time insurgent stronghold about 35 miles (60 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad. Six people were killed and another 26 wounded, police and hospital officials said.
Hours earlier, in the northern city of Mosul, a car bomb killed a British security contractor, the British Embassy said. The contractor's identity was not released, pending notification of his next of kin.
In Baghdad gunmen on a motorcycle killed Ali Mohammed Fakhir, a national judo champion, while in Fallujah, a member of a government-backed, anti-al-Qaida militia was killed after a bomb attached to his car exploded, police officials said.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.