Iraq Beyond Gridlock

In the end, it was Moqtada al-Sadr who cast the deciding vote on Friday, bringing Iraq one step closer to ending its record-setting 29-week stalemate in forming a government. Despite a longstanding grudge, the hardline cleric threw his support to incumbent Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's coalition.

A Sadr official tells NEWSWEEK privately that the breakthrough came when several ranking members of Maliki's coalition, the State of Law, met with Sadr in Iran to negotiate his key demand. At issue: 2,000 of Sadr's Mahdi Army fighters who have been held since they were rounded up, with Maliki's blessing, in 2007 and 2008. Senior members of Maliki's coalition confirm that a compromise settled the deal, although at the weekend Maliki remained a few seats short of the majority he needs—and getting them could actually ignite worse problems: if the Sunnis who voted for Ayad Allawi's nonsectarian Iraqiya list are shut out of the next government completely, many could take up arms again. And this time, far fewer U.S. troops are on hand to stop a civil war.

With Hussam Ali in Baghdad