BAGHDAD - Iran is throwing its weight behind Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's bid for a second term, political insiders said, an endorsement that could seal his hold on power.

Tehran wields considerable influence over Iraq's two largest Shiite blocs, which formed an alliance this month after coming in second and third in the March 7 parliamentary election. That alliance has virtually ensured they will form another Shiite-dominated government - even though a Sunni-backed party won the most seats.

The United States is concerned about Iranian attempts to influence Iraq's political process, a State Department spokesman said Friday.

He reiterated Washington's call to Iraqi lawmakers not to exclude minority Sunnis from government, something many fear could inflame sectarian tensions anew.

Shiite coalitions have ruled Iraq since the end of Saddam Hussein's regime but, under U.S. pressure, accommodated Sunnis.

The anger of Sunnis over being largely excluded early on from government fueled sectarian violence that brought Iraq to the brink of civil war several years ago. Washington will no longer have such leverage as its military role fades.

It is widely believed that Shiite Iran played a role in pushing through the deal linking Maliki's State of Law bloc with the even more religiously conservative Iraqi National Alliance (INA), which is dominated by supporters of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who lives in Iran.

The Sadrists dislike Maliki because he crushed their Mahdi Army militia in 2008 and jailed thousands of them. They initially rejected him as head of a new government.

Politicians involved in negotiations said Iran is now urging the Sadrists to back Maliki and that the Sadrists are softening.

"Iran has been trying to persuade the Sadrists to let al-Maliki be the prime minister," said one alliance politician knowledgeable about the negotiations. An INA official confirmed this. Both spoke on condition of anonymity.

They said Iran's primary goal is to prevent former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, whose Iraqiya coalition won the most seats, from becoming prime minister again.

Iraqiya's surprisingly strong showing - 91 of 325 seats to 89 for Maliki's bloc - was initially seen as an opening for neighboring Sunni Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, to curtail Iranian influence in Iraq.

Allawi is a Shiite, but Iraqiya was backed largely by Sunnis and projected a secular, nationalist character. Allawi wants to move Iraq away from Iran and rebuild relations with Arab states.

Kazim al-Muqdadi, a political analyst at Baghdad University, said the weakness of Iraq's government made it vulnerable to interference from foreign countries, most significantly Iran.

"On the other hand," he said, "Saudi Arabia is interfering to counter the Iranian influence by supporting Iraqiya list."

Car Bomb Kills 23 In Shiite Town

A car bomb exploded Friday at a crowded open-air market in a Shiite town northeast of Baghdad. The blast killed 23 people and wounded more than 50, Iraqi police and hospital officials said.

The bombing struck the town of Khalis, a Shiite enclave 50 miles from Baghdad surrounded by the largely Sunni province of Diyala,

a former al-Qaeda stronghold.

Most of those killed Friday were sitting in a cafe in the center of the market that was reduced to rubble.

"There was a sudden explosion followed by heavy shooting with smoke, fire and yelling, then sirens, ambulances, police," said Yasser Mohammed, 28, a blacksmith who walked by the cafe minutes before the blast.

"There was a frightening scene, mostly women running to the scene, I assume to look for their husbands or sons who go to the cafe to play dominos, backgammon, or poker".

- Associated Press

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