Car bombs struck three Shiite cities in southern Iraq on Monday, killing more than 20 people in an apparent move to derail progress toward forming a new government as political leaders tried to break the eight-month deadlock.
The blasts in the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf and in Iraq's second largest city of Basra were the third major attacks since last week, after the slaughter of more than 50 Christians in a Baghdad church and a string of 13 coordinated bombings across Baghdad that killed more than 90 people.
There was no claim of responsibility for Monday's attacks, but the violence underscores the desire of al-Qaida and other Sunni extremists to foment sectarian division at a time when Iraqis are watching to see if their leaders can form a new government accepted by both the Shiite majority and the Sunni minority.
In the northern town of Irbil, leaders of Iraq's major political blocs met Monday for the first time since parliamentary elections in March. The 90-minute televised session, the start of three days of talks, did not lead to a breakthrough.
The battle is largely a contest between the Iranian-favored coalition of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki along with followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr against a Sunni-backed secular coalition led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi.
At stake is whether Iraq has an inclusive government of both the majority Shiites and the minority Sunnis or a Shiite-dominated government with the Sunnis largely in opposition -- a recipe that many worry will turn the country back to the sectarian violence of a few years ago.
Al-Maliki's bloc won 89 seats in the March 7 election compared to 91 for Allawi's coalition; neither side won a majority of seats needed to govern.
Recently momentum has moved in al-Maliki's direction. After gaining the support of al-Sadr, who used to be one of al-Maliki's staunchest opponents, he also picked up the support of a smaller coalition this weekend.
And the Kurds, who rule the three northern Iraqi provinces, are thought to support al-Maliki's re-election bid so long as President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, is allowed to remain in office.
Officials in Allawi's Iraqiya coalition said Monday that they were still demanding the prime minister's office, but an international observer with knowledge of the talks said there is grudging acceptance within Iraqiya that al-Maliki will keep his position. He did not want to be identified because of the sensitivity of the ongoing talks.
Officials familiar with the talks say Iraqiya is pushing for limits to al-Maliki's power should they join forces with him and that Allawi is rejecting a proposed role of parliament speaker in an al-Maliki government.
One idea on the table is the creation of an independent position as head of a National Council for the Strategic Policies. Iraqiya officials want the position to have concrete authority, while al-Maliki's supporters prefer it to be solely consultative.
"Al-Maliki is very confident. He knows he has all that power and he intends to keep it," said Marina Ottoway, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "He is not interested in the position of prime minister with less power."
The day began with a car bombing in Karbala, home to two of Shiite Islam's most revered sites. Seven people were killed including six Iranian pilgrims in the blast, which took place in a parking lot where people were getting on and off buses.
Then another car bomb exploded about 500 yards from the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, killing nine people. A burned-out shell of a bus could be seen next to the blackened pavement.
Both cities play host each year to hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who come to Iraq as a show of religious devotion. Such pilgrims make enticing targets to Sunni militants such as al-Qaida who often attack them at bus stops instead of close to the shrines, where security has been bolstered.
In the last attack of the day, a car bombing killed five people in Basra, deep within the Shiite south.
The coordination behind the three attacks suggested al-Qaida in Iraq was responsible.
One analyst said the recent violence has helped al-Maliki's bid to keep his post.
"Al-Maliki has benefited from the public and foreign pressure on all Iraqi politicians that the government should be formed as soon as possible, otherwise the country will slip into the worst," said Baghdad-based political analyst Kadhum al-Muqdadi. "The people now do not care about who is in the government, rather they care about the formation of a government able to protect them."
Associated Press writers Yahya Barzanji in Irbil, Iraq and Sameer N. Yacoub in Amman, Jordan contributed to this report.