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Iraq's divided leaders meet for the first time since March elections

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US calls for Kurdish leader to step aside

The talks over forming a government have been bogged down by insistence by both Mr. Maliki and Mr. Allawi that they are entitled to be prime minister and disagreements over which party would get the presidency and the role of parliamentary speaker.

Despite strong opposition even within Maliki's own coalition to him retaining his position, as a religious Shiite politician with substantial popular support, he appears to be most likely to emerge as prime minister.

Much of national and international concern over the new government focuses on the consequences of excluding Allawi’s secular Iraqiya coalition, which has strong support from Sunni Muslims. The sense of alienation by Sunnis in the new Shiite-dominated Iraq is believed to have fueled the insurgency here.

Political sources say although Iraqiya is publicly still insisting on the prime ministry, in closed-door negotiations they have shifted to demanding the presidency with expanded powers. Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani has been president in every Iraqi government since Saddam Hussein was toppled and the Kurds are unlikely to easily give up the post.

“We’ve been under tremendous pressure by the Americans in ... clearly asking President Talabani to step down,” says a Kurdish source close to the talks. He says both President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have asked Mr. Talabani to step aside in recent phone calls.

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