BAGHDAD The United States might be trying to disentangle itself from Iraq, but there is no shortage of contenders to take its place.
A battle between Iraq's neighbours for influence in Baghdad is being played out between Iraq's Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds, complicating efforts to stitch together a government three months after an inconclusive parliamentary election.
Failure to reconcile their rival interests could yet delay the government for months to come, further testing stability as all but 50,000 U.S. troops withdraw over the hot Iraqi summer.
"The train leading to the formation of an Iraqi government will depart from Saudi Arabia, passing through Iran, Turkey and Syria, before reaching Baghdad," an Iraqi political analyst said on condition of anonymity.
"The United States is not alone," he said.
The March 7 vote was narrowly won by the cross-sectarian Iraqiya alliance, led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and heavily backed by Iraq's once-dominant Sunni minority.
But Iraqiya polled too few votes to form a government on its own, and now the race is on to secure a governing majority in the new 325-seat parliament after the Supreme Court on Tuesday certified the results.
All sides say there is room for all in the next government, but key is who leads it and takes the powerful post of prime minister.
Washington says it wants a government that respects the will of the voters, hoping for a broad coalition reflecting Iraqiya's victory and aiding stability as the U.S. military cuts troop numbers from just under 90,000 to 50,000 by Sept. 1.
But Iran has other ideas.
Mainly Shi'ite Iran is backing a Shi'ite-led government of Prime Minister's Nuri al-Maliki's second-placed State of Law and the third-placed Iraqi National Alliance of anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
The two announced an alliance in principle on May 4. But analysts say Iran is lukewarm on the prospect of Maliki staying on as prime minister, fuelling a dispute between the two blocs over who should head the government.
Tehran faces competition from Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the bastion of Sunni Islam and is alarmed at rising Iranian influence and the dominance of Iraq's previously disempowered Shi'ite majority since the 2003 U.S. invasion.
Saudi Arabia is backing Iraqiya and Allawi.
Gala Riani of IHS Global Insight said the deadlock in Iraq was the result of political immaturity, weak rules and "the salience of ethno-national and sectarian identities."
"Certainly Iraq's neighbours have all in one way or another exacerbated these divides by playing on them and using them to their advantage to ensure that the balance of power in Iraq does not tip against them," Riani told Reuters.
"Having a friendly government in Baghdad is ... seen as critical to their sense of security and to some degree even stability."
Overall violence in Iraq has dropped sharply from the all-out sectarian war of 2006/07, but the situation is fragile, and a spike in civilian casualties over the past two months suggests insurgents are trying exploit the power vacuum.
Allawi has warned Iraq risks greater sectarian bloodshed if Sunni-backed Iraqiya does not lead the next government, which will likely preside over the lucrative revival of Iraq's stagnant oil industry on the back of multibillion-dollar deals.
Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal is reported to have accused Maliki last month of trying to "hijack" the election, to "deny the Iraqi people their legitimately elected government."
Maliki, who has often accused unnamed Gulf Arab countries of supporting Sunni Islamist insurgents in Iraq, shot back, saying Prince Turki was behaving "as if he is part of the Iraqi conflict".
It was a telling comment.
"The Iraqi issue is not purely a domestic Iraqi issue," said Iraqi analyst Nabeel Yasin. "Regional and international players are active. This has complicated the Iraqi issue and made it very difficult to predict what might happen."
U.S. troops are set to leave Iraq by the end of 2011, and ideological arch-rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran look well placed to expand the influence garnered since the 2003 invasion.
But they are not alone.
Syria too, accused by Maliki of harbouring Baathist allies of Saddam Hussein, is keen to keep him out of government.
Turkey, battling a decades-long guerrilla war by Kurdish separatists in its southeast, is watching closely Kurdish aspirations in the neighbouring, semi-autonomous Kurdistan region of northern Iraq.
The next Iraqi government will face continued tensions over the disputed regions adjacent to Kurdistan, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk that has long been coveted by the Kurds.
Turkey wants a strong government in Baghdad that can rein in the Kurds. Syria also has a Kurdish minority.
Maliki has criticised efforts to 'internationalise' Iraqi politics and condemned Allawi's warning of bloodshed.
"Those who threaten violence and civil war, and call for foreign interference not only violate national sovereignty but pave the way for internal battles, for regional and international conflicts on the Iraqi stage," he said on Tuesday.
Allawi says Iraq became an international issue with the U.S. invasion, and the world must now guarantee Iraqi democracy.
"Calling on the international community to fulfil its obligations in Iraq does not mean we are opening the door to interference," he told Iraqi television late last month.
(Additional reporting by Matt Robinson; Editing by Matt Robinson and Samia Nakhoul)
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