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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's rivals have started campaigning for term limits in an attempt to block the Shi'ite leader running for a third term in 2014, opening up a new battle in the country's fragile cross-sectarian government.
Since the last American troops left Iraq nearly a year ago, the country's Shi'ite, Sunni Muslim and ethnic Kurdish parties have been caught up in a power-sharing stalemate that has left key oil and investment laws paralysed in parliament.
Kurdish parties, the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc and even some rivals in Maliki's own Shi'ite coalition failed earlier this year to trigger a vote of no confidence against a prime minister whom they accuse of consolidating power at their expense.
Those same factions have now handed a proposed law to parliament that would limit the mandate of prime minister to two terms, challenging a leader well-known for his skilful manoeuvring through Iraq's shifting alliances.
"A proposed law was presented to the parliament with the support of more than 130 lawmakers," said Amir al-Kinani, a lawmaker with Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Sadrist bloc and a member of the legal committee.
Maliki's opponents would need a simple majority in the 325-seat Council of Representatives to pass the law. But in a country of often fickle political loyalties and divided parties securing that support faces huge challenges.
Political blocs are already jockeying for position before provincial government elections in April, aware that a strong showing will position them for the national election in 2014.
That, his allies say, will likely allow Maliki room to horse-trade and play already splintered factions against the other in the debate over term limits. His Shi'ite coalition still has the strongest position in parliament.
"We will challenge it from the beginning and even if it is passed we will appeal in Federal Court," said Abbas al-Biyati, a lawmaker from Maliki's State of Law coalition.
Iraq's political outlook is often complicated by sectarian tensions, violence from a stubborn insurgency and by intervention from the country's neighbours who often step into the fray to back one bloc or another.
Maliki last April emerged unscathed from one of his toughest battles since his government was formed 23 months ago after his foes failed to muster the required ballots for a vote of no confidence to expel him from office.
His allies say they will try to split support for the term limit campaign by adjusting the law to include other posts such as those of Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani, a Kurd, and parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni leader from the Iraqiya block.
"This is a very sensitive issue," said a senior lawmaker from Barzani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan lawmakers.
Editing by Patrick Markey and Keiron Henderson