Iraq's political leaders held a second day of talks yesterday aimed at patching up the fractured unity government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who is under pressure from Washington to find an end to the political paralysis.
The meeting comes after Iraq's top Shiite and Kurdish leaders formed a new political alliance on Thursday, but without rival Sunni leaders.
Talks involving Maliki, Kurdish President Jalal Talabani, Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, Shiite Vice President Adel Abdel Mahdi, and Masud Barzani, president of the northern Kurdish region, began on Saturday and were continuing yesterday, an official from Talabani's office said.
"Yesterday the three-member presidency, the prime minister and Mr Masud Barzani held a meeting to look into ways of solving outstanding issues and to decide on the summit," he said, referring to a political summit proposed by Maliki at a date still to be specified.
"Today there are more meetings between the leaders. The summit will be held a couple of days later," the official said, describing the weekend talks as "preparatory."
Maliki's government has been debilitated by a decision on Aug. 1 of the main Sunni political bloc -- the National Concord Front -- to withdraw its ministers from the Cabinet over a power-sharing dispute with the prime minister's Shiite supporters.
The walkout means nearly half Maliki's Cabinet has quit or is boycotting meetings, leading to delays in the passage of crucial legislative laws aimed at rebuilding the country.
Maliki is under growing pressure from Washington to end the infighting, concerned that it could torpedo efforts to reconcile the warring factions and undermine the work of 155,000 US troops to end the conflict.
On Thursday, Talabani and Maliki announced the formation of an alliance grouping the Shiite Dawa party and Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council and the Kurdish factions of Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdish Democratic Party (PDK).
But the National Concord Front, the main Sunni Arab political bloc in the 275-member parliament, slammed the new tie-up as a "futile" exercise.
US President George W. Bush on Saturday expressed concern at lack of reconciliation in the Iraqi government, which is still deeply divided along sectarian lines.
"Americans can be encouraged by the progress and reconciliation that are taking place at the local level," Bush said in his weekly radio address.
However, he said: "political progress at the national level had not matched the pace of progress at the local level."
The top US military commander in the country, General David Petraeus, and US Ambassador Ryan Crocker are scheduled to report to Congress next month on whether efforts to halt sectarian violence and return Iraq to viable self-governance were bearing fruit.
The US government is hoping that before then progress will be made on 18 benchmarks it has set for continued US support for the Iraqi government.
These include sustainable progress in national reconciliation, the passage of an oil revenue-sharing law, and a review of de-Baathification laws to allow former military officers to serve in the new army.
In a report to Congress last month, the White House said satisfactory progress was achieved only on eight of 18 benchmarks.
A less than flattering report by Petraeus and Crocker would be leapt upon by Bush's Democratic opponents, who are demanding a phased withdrawal from Iraq.