Rumbles Within Ruling Coalition
On March 7, the Al-Fadilah Party withdrew from the UIA, complaining that its agenda was too sectarian, Reuters reported. "We consider the first step of saving Iraq is to dismantle these blocs and to prevent blocs [from] forming on a sectarian basis," Al-Fadilah leader Nadim al-Jabiri said.
Then on April 16, six ministers from Muqtada al-Sadr's political bloc resigned in protest after al-Maliki refused to discuss a timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal. The resignation did not directly affect the stability of al-Maliki's coalition, since the al-Sadr bloc is still in the UIA, at least for the moment.
Other lawmakers have voiced frustration with the government's inability to pass legislation outlining the equitable distribution of oil revenues, saying this is a clear indication that al-Maliki should step down.
"He is a weak prime minister," Mahmud Uthman, a member of the Kurdish Alliance, which is part of the government, told the U.S. daily "USA Today" on April 24. "This government has not delivered and is not capable of doing the job. They should resign."
Shi'ite lawmaker Qasim Dawud, a member of an independent bloc within the UIA, told the daily that the prime minister's inability to push through legislation that would ease tensions between Shi'a and Sunnis would ultimately lead to this government's demise.
"The present government is not competent," Dawud said. "It's more or less paralyzed, inactive. I doubt very much that this government can continue in power much longer."
Shifting Political Sands
The political paralysis has caused a flurry of political jockeying in an effort to create a new coalition to unseat the UIA and break the political logjam. In March, former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi announced that he was moving to form a new broad-based political bloc, in an effort to form a new national-unity government.
Although no official announcement has been made concerning this new political coalition, allegedly called the Iraq National Front, there has been speculation that it may encompass a broad-based grouping of political parties, including both Shi'ite and Sunni parties. There have been rumors for months that Allawi's Iraqi National List has been discussing an alliance with the Accordance Front, the National Dialogue Front, and the National Reconciliation Front
Indeed, the Saudi daily "Al-Watan" reported on April 22,that Allawi met with al-Sadr and several of his deputies, allegedly to discuss the proposition of the al-Sadr bloc joining the Iraq National Front.
This would be an extraordinary turn of events between two bitter rivals. Allawi and al-Sadr clashed bitterly in 2004, when the former was prime minister and the latter spearheaded two major uprisings against U.S. and Iraqi forces. In fact, there was speculation that Allawi was planning on killing al-Sadr during the second uprising, because the radical cleric was becoming too popular and powerful.
An alliance would underscore the capriciousness of Iraqi politics, where alliances shift, internal disputes cause splits, and unlikely partnerships emerge based on mutual needs.
Impatience In Washington
U.S. officials continue to send conflicting messages about their support for al-Maliki. U.S. officials have stressed their support for al-Maliki, but have called for benchmarks that the Iraqi government has to meet in order for U.S. support to continue.
On April 19, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates made an unscheduled trip to Iraq, where he expressed impatience with the Iraqi government and warned that the U.S. military buildup in Iraq was not "an open-ended commitment."
"The clock is ticking," Gates said. "I know it's difficult, and clearly the attack on the Council of Representatives has made people nervous." Gates was referring to the April 12 suicide attack on the Iraqi parliament building in the Green Zone.
During a news conference in Berlin on April 25, Gates was asked if al-Maliki's government was able to achieve a political reconciliation among the Sunnis, Shi'a, and Kurds. Gates curtly replied less-than enthusiastically, "This government is the one we have to work with."
Future Tied To Security Plan
Backroom political discussions are nothing new during al-Maliki's tenure. In November, prior to a meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush in Jordan, al-Maliki was severely criticized by Iraqi lawmakers, including members of the UIA, for being a weak and ineffective leader.
The following months, rumors appeared in the Iraqi press of a new political alliance being formed between the main Shi'ite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the Kurdish Alliance, and the Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party. But internal disagreements and competing agendas prevented the new political bloc from forming.
Ironically, competing political agendas might be al-Maliki's saving grace; the inability of other political parties to put aside their differences to form a cohesive alliance may actually keep him in power.
However, al-Maliki's fate seems inextricably linked to the security situation. After a promising beginning to the Baghdad security operation, which saw a significant decline in bombings and sectarian attacks, recent weeks have witnessed attacks on an almost unprecedented level.
The bold suicide attack on the Iraqi parliament building on April 12, killed three people, including an Iraqi lawmaker, and wounded 22. Then on April 18, a series of suicide bombings in Baghdad killed more than 200 people and wounded more than 250, in what many media outlets described as one of the bloodiest days since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Qathim Turki Jamil, a member of Allawi's political movement, suggested that if violence is not quelled through the current security plan, then al-Maliki's position may be untenable and the Iraqi people many demand a change, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on April 22.
"The current government has attached itself to this security plan," Jamil said. "But what has it accomplished so far other than more explosions? The Iraqi people have run out of patience."
Al-Sadr supporters demonstrating against the U.S. presence in Iraq in October 2006 (epa)
A RADICAL CLERIC. Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is a key figure in Iraq. He heads the Imam Al-Mahdi Army militia and a political bloc that is prominent in parliament and the government. His ties to Iran have also provoked concerns in some quarters.