BAGHDAD President Jalal Talabani's invitation to lunch Thursday led to the largest gathering of Iraqi politicians since the March election and broke "psychological barriers," Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi said.
The meeting, meant to kick-start serious negotiations to form a new government 2-1/2 months after the vote, lured Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and many of the political elite -- with one notable exception: Iyad Allawi, leader of the Iraqiya bloc that won the most seats, was in Jordan.
Allawi's cross-sectarian alliance was strongly supported by minority Sunnis, in an election Iraqis hoped would bring stability after years of war, and its possible exclusion from government has raised concern about renewed sectarian violence.
Maliki's largely Shi'ite State of Law coalition has already announced a tie-up with the other major Shi'ite bloc, the Iraqi National Alliance, to form the largest grouping in parliament.
Allawi has warned that any attempt to keep Iraqiya out of the government could trigger violence. He and Maliki, vying for the prime minister's post, have not met since the election.
The election results have not yet been certified and some politicians expect it will take weeks to form a new government.
"We did not expect, nor did the Iraqi people, that the differences among political lists would end with this lunch invitation," Hashemi, a leader of Allawi's Iraqiya, told reporters after the luncheon. "But it has certainly broken a lot of psychological barriers among the leaders."
Present were leaders of the Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs that are jockeying for position in the new government, with the exception of Allawi and two prominent Sunni leaders in Iraqiya, Osama al-Nujaifi and Rafa al-Essawi.
ALLAWI WON MOST SEATS
Allawi's coalition won 91 parliamentary seats in March, Maliki's State of Law took 89 and the INA had 70.
None was close to the 163 needed to form a majority government, but an alliance of State of Law and the INA would have 159 seats and need only four more to govern.
Post-election political tension has left Iraq vulnerable to attacks by insurgents. Gunmen and bombers have killed hundreds of people in recent weeks.
U.S. troops are due to end combat operations in Iraq at the end of August and leave the country by the end of 2011.
Hashemi said the absence of some Iraqiya leaders was not deliberate. Allawi left two days ago for Jordan, but "the absence of Dr. Iyad does not mean that the list was not in attendance," Hashemi said.
Maliki criticised his rival in an interview published on Thursday in the al-Mada newspaper, saying Allawi was "preaching for a civil war."
"... he who speaks of this doesn't deserve to assume a position (of power) because he promotes the atmosphere for civil war and sectarianism," the newspaper quoted Maliki as saying.
A series of attacks in Iraq Thursday included one by a suicide bomber who killed two policemen and a civilian at a security checkpoint in the restive northern city of Mosul. Gunmen killed two police officers at another checkpoint in the city, police said.
Other attacks took place in the capital, Baghdad, and the town of Mahmudiya, 30 km (20 miles) to the south.
(Editing by Jim Loney, and Tim Pearce)