Allawi speaks of tangible progress towards forming government

Russia’s Medvedev says Iran close to get nuke weapons, Salehi announces Iran produced 20 kg of uranium

Karroubi slams Ahmadinejad’s policies

Warnings mount on outbreak of nuclear war in Middle East

Iyad Allawi, one of two principal contenders vying to become Iraq’s next prime minister, said on Friday he hoped a new government would be formed next month, ending a four-month political hiatus.

“We hope to form the government in August,” Allawi, who narrowly beat incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki into second place in the March 7 general election, said in the Lebanese capital.

“The negotiations between the political groups entered their last phase and we wish to close this file as soon as possible,” he said after talks in Beirut with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Allawi’s broadly secular Iraqiya party narrowly pushed Maliki’s State of Law Shiite coalition into second place in the poll, but the incumbent has been doggedly fighting to stay on and serve a second term.

Last weekend on a surprise visit to Baghdad, US Vice President Joe Biden urged Iraqi leaders to end differences and form a government.

Hopes that Iraq's parliament could convene this week fell apart Monday as the country stumbled into month five with no new government and the prime minister hitting a brick wall with his nominal Shiite allies, some of whom deeply oppose him staying in his post.

The heads of the main political blocs met Monday in the latest attempt to find common ground, but with no resolution on filling top posts in sight, they decided to delay the next session for two weeks, acting parliament speaker Fouad Massoum said.

That means more backroom negotiations as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki tries to cobble together a coalition that will back him for a new term, while his rivals press for him to step down, all against a backdrop of the U.S. military preparing to withdraw all combat troops by September and all forces by the end of next year.

Shiite parties appeared to have made a breakthrough in early May when al-Maliki's State of Law and the Iraqi National Alliance, a Shiite bloc backed by Iran, announced a coalition that seemed to give them a sure hand to form the government.

But they have since been deadlocked over al-Maliki, as some INA members staunchly reject a new term.

"They seem to be totally stalemated, and they're totally stalemated because nobody wants Maliki to be prime Minster," said Marina Ottoway, from the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for Peace.

The deadlock is so tough, the prime minister is now flirting with his archrival, Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who leads the mainly Sunni coalition, Iraqiya. But that political combination has its own challenges.

To be sure, no one thought seating a new government would be easy.

The election results set up a contentious fight: Iraqiya narrowly edged out the State of Law coalition, 91 seats to 89, in a March 7 election shocker that was celebrated by Iraq's Sunni community. But it was far short of the necessary 163-seat majority.

The parliament held its inaugural session on June 14, but it was largely symbolic and ended after less than 20 minutes.

Under Iraq's constitution, the legislature should have chosen a parliament speaker and a president, but these appointments had to be put off because they are part of the negotiations between major political blocs over the rest of the new leadership — including a prime minister and top Cabinet officials.

Members of the Iraqi National Alliance, which includes followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, have vehemently opposed al-Maliki continuing as prime minister.

Al-Maliki jailed thousands of al-Sadr's supporters during U.S.-Iraqi offensives in their strongholds of Basra and Baghdad's Sadr City.

The Shiite alliance was more about keeping Allawi from power rather than any desire to work together, said Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish politician.

"Frankly speaking, things are not clear, and nobody knows if they (the blocs) can reach an agreement or not," Othman said Monday.

Officials from both parties in the alliance said other objections to al-Maliki included poor relations with the Arab world and a tendency to act without consulting others outside his inner circle, pushing members of his Dawa Party into government posts and appointing members of the armed forces loyal to him.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the ongoing negotiations.

"There are a lot of grudges against him," said Ottoway. But these complaints against al-Maliki also indicate a bit of sour grapes by political leaders who likely also want the opportunity to put their own people in power.

And the prime minister has been lauded for the Basra and Sadr City offensives as an indication he's willing to go after Shiite militias just as much as Sunni militias.

Prominent Dawa party member, Abdul-Hadi al-Hassani, acknowledged opposition to al-Maliki's nomination but said the prime minister was working "according to the constitution and the law."

The political drama has led to speculation al-Maliki is turning instead to Allawi to form a coalition. The two met June 29 — their second meeting since the election — in what was viewed as a hint by al-Maliki to his Shiite allies.

"It is possible that an Iraqiya-State of Law alliance could emerge if talks continue as positively as they are now," Iraqiya spokesman Abdul Rahman al-Bayder said.

But any agreement between Iraqiya and State of Law would require that either Allawi or al-Maliki — or both — give up their bid to be prime minister. Neither seems eager to do that, although political analyst Kazim al-Muqdadi, from Baghdad University, said al-Maliki may be willing to give Iraqiya key ministries as long as he gets the top job.

Meanwhile, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Iran is getting closer to achieving the capability to make nuclear weapons, as the Islamic republic vowed to multiply its enriched uranium stockpile.

“We have to get away from short-cut approaches to this issue,” Medvedev said in a meeting with ambassadors in Moscow last week. “It’s obvious that Iran is moving closer to possessing a capability that could in principle be used to build nuclear weapons.”

The Russian president called for the urgent resumption of talks on the Iranian nuclear program.

The plea came after Iran, which has rejected United Nations Security Council demands to halt uranium enrichment, said it can produce enough 20 percent enriched uranium to power a Tehran research reactor, which needs six times the country’s current stockpile, by September 2011.

The Persian Gulf state last month came under a fourth set of UN sanctions and tougher U.S. and European Union measures.

Iran has enough low-enriched uranium to make two nuclear bombs that could be ready for delivery within two years, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta said on June 27. Medvedev at the time said the U.S. assessment was a “concern.”

“The Russians, who usually do come to the Western side despite earlier rhetoric, are now looking at the real possibility that Iran will be able to produce nuclear weapons,” said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.

“There are increasing signs that diplomacy is not working and some kind of military strike is inevitable,” he said in a phone interview. An attack could be mounted by the U.S., Israel or the two combined, he said.

A senior envoy from Iran’s neighbor, the United Arab Emirates, on July 6 was reported in the Washington Times as saying that his country supports military action against Iranian nuclear facilities. The U.A.E. Foreign Ministry later said its ambassador to the U.S., Yousef al-Otaiba, had been quoted out of context.

Iran is preparing its response to an international offer of talks on the country’s nuclear program, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki was quoted as saying by the state-run Press TV on its website. A fuel-swap plan brokered by Brazil and Turkey, which was rejected by Western nations, should be discussed, he said.

The five veto-holding members of the UN Security Council and Germany pressed Iran on July 2 to agree to talks, a day after the U.S. tightened trade restrictions on Iran following new UN sanctions on June 9.

Western nations last month dismissed the plan for a fuel swap because Iran vowed to continue enriching uranium after receiving a supply of the material in a form needed to run the research reactor.

Iran refuses to suspend enrichment, saying the work is necessary for civilian purposes such as power generation. The U.S. and many of its allies say Iran’s nuclear technology may be intended for a weapons program.

Iran said last month it would enrich its own fuel for the medical reactor, which needs 120 kilograms of 20 percent enriched fuel, after the U.S. and its allies rejected the deal to exchange 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium.

“Iran has now produced 20 kilograms of nuclear fuel with an enrichment level of 20 percent,” Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, said in comments reported by Press TV. The fuel rods for the research reactor should be delivered by September next year, he said.

A nuclear weapon could be made by enriching 150 to 200 kilograms of 20 percent uranium to a concentration of 80 to 90 percent, Paul Ingram, executive director of the London-based British American Security Information Council, said in a June 23 phone interview. “Enriching to 20 percent is like going about 80 percent of the way towards having military material,” he said.

Meanwhile, Opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi has said Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards back sanctions against Tehran as they make "astronomical profits" from the punitive measures, a website said on Sunday.

"I believe that part of the Iranian rule as well as the Revolutionary Guards are in favor of sanctions as they make gigantic and astronomical profits from them," Karroubi was quoted as saying on opposition website Rahesabz.net.

The Guards regularly shrug off international sanctions imposed on Iran for its defiant nuclear program, with some top commanders expressing willingness to take on projects abandoned by Western companies, including in the energy sector.

Karroubi, who steadfastly opposes the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, again blamed the hardliner for the latest sets of sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, the European Union and the United States.

"Imprudence in (Iran's) foreign policy and the lack of political sanity in the actions and political and diplomatic words of the man in charge of the government have imposed high costs on the country," the reformist cleric said in a direct attack on Ahmadinejad.

"We should not give an excuse through shallow words and bungling actions and allow others to easily impose sanctions against Iran," the website quoted Karroubi as saying on Saturday at a meeting with families of detained opposition members.

Iran is under four sets of UN sanctions for its sustained pursuance of the nuclear program, all of which have been imposed since Ahmadinejad first became president in 2005.

Western governments suspect Iran's nuclear program is a cover for a weapons drive, something Tehran has repeatedly denied, maintaining it is aimed solely at power generation and medical research.

Karroubi, along with Iran's other main opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, continue to level accusations that Ahmadinejad's re-election last year was the result of a massive vote rigging.

On the other hand, the leader of the Cuban Revolution Fidel Castro has warned that an attack by the US and Israel on Iran will inevitably lead to a nuclear war, while criticizing Washington for being the world's largest spender on weapons.

"When they (the US) decide to attack Iran... one war after the other will be unleashed", Castro said. Castro on a special television appearance made an exhaustive analysis of the grave situation existing in the Middle East as a consequence of the threats by the US and Israel to launch a destructive strike against Iran.

He observed that in any case, in the face of a massive attack against Iran, North Korea will not wait to be attacked, but will act, and a nuclear war will also break out in that zone.

He noted Washington's mistaken criterion concerning the possibility that the Iranian people would not resist the aggressors, and emphasized the type of resistance that they would indeed face.

The Iranians -he recalled- have been preparing themselves for 30 years, and have acquired modern airplanes and weapons necessary for their defense.

He was on a TV program Mesa Redonda or Round Table.

They are training all persons between the ages of 12 and 60; just the Guardians of the Revolution have a million members; the army and the navy have air, sea and land forces; there are 20 million Shiite Muslims, Castro said.

He added that when a chemical war was launched against Iran after the Islamic Revolution, the current Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was heading the Guardians of the Revolution defending Iran's frontiers.

Ahmadinejad is no novice, reiterated the Cuban leader. From where, then, does the US get the idea that they will run away in the face of an enemy that aims to destroy everything and even declares that to be so?, he questioned.

After coinciding with Noam Chomsky in that the present situation is the Obama administration's most serious foreign policy crisis, he referred to the grave situation existing in the Korean peninsula.

He insisted that the US was responsible for the sinking of the sophisticated South Korean ship, by means of placing a mine below the ship, with the objective of justifying an attack on North Korea.

While analyzing the US Government's military policy, Fidel Castro denounced that the US spends more resources on military matters than all the other countries of the world. In the past year -he noted- Washington designated 1.53 trillion of dollars to the armaments sector.

This figure, he emphasized, is 5.9 per cent greater than that for 2008 and 49 per cent more than the year 2000.