BAGHDAD — Iraq's ruling political coalition, under stress for weeks, is now in danger of an open rupture that could split the nation's Shiite-majority bloc, Iraqi officials said.
For several weeks, U.S. officials and rival Iraqi politicians have been intensifying pressure on interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari to step aside. The most recent such move came Tuesday, when Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mehdi publicly called for Jafari to quit.
Jafari and Abdul Mehdi are leading figures in the United Iraqi Alliance, a combination of seven mostly Shiite Muslim parties that dominates Iraqi politics.
Maintaining the unity of the alliance has been a major goal of Shiite leaders, who see it as key to guaranteeing the rights of Shiites, who were subordinated to Sunni Muslims for most of Iraq's modern history.
The dispute over whether Jafari should keep his job threatens to break the alliance, which could inflame the nation's sectarian and ethnic rivalries, Iraqi analysts said.
Adnan Yassin, a sociologist at Baghdad University, said there are "divisions inside the UIA -- there are more than seven sides" to the debate within the alliance.
Alliance leaders trying to keep the coalition together expressed fear that weakness within the Shiite bloc could be exploited by other political powers, including the Kurds and Sunni Arabs.
On Wednesday, Jafari again rejected appeals to step aside, saying he had been chosen to be the Shiites' standard-bearer in a fair election.
"There is a decision that was reached by a democratic mechanism, and I stand with it," Jafari said in an interview with the British newspaper the Guardian.
In mid-February, Jafari, who has been Iraq's interim prime minister for a year, won the alliance's endorsement to keep his job, defeating Abdul Mehdi by a single vote.
Until Abdul Mehdi's public statements this week, most senior leaders of the alliance had publicly backed Jafari, though several had privately worked against him.
Nearly four months after voters chose a new parliament, Iraq remains without a government. The alliance holds 130 seats in the legislature, making it the largest bloc in the 275-seat body. Naming a prime minister, however, requires a two-thirds vote, so the Shiite bloc must reach out to minority Kurdish and Sunni Arab parties, which oppose Jafari.
Abdul Mehdi said Iraq's volatile security situation was reason enough for Jafari to stand aside. "The country is already in crisis, and we have to find an end to that," he said.
His remarks on the BBC program "HARDtalk" followed a visit to Baghdad this week by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who questioned the leadership abilities of Jafari, a religious scholar with ties to Iran.
Bush administration officials are frustrated with Jafari, saying his government's inability to provide security and basic goods to Iraqi citizens has made the U.S.-backed political structure look weak and careless of the suffering of ordinary Iraqis.
Weakness in the prime minister's office may also strengthen the hands of outside parties.
"There is Iranian pressure on the decisions inside the UIA," said Suha Azzawi, a Sunni Arab nationalist and women's rights activist.
But the effort to push Jafari aside threatens to reopen a months-long battle within the Shiite bloc.
Jafari has the support of radical cleric Muqtada Sadr, whose private militia has repeatedly fought U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies in Baghdad's poor neighborhoods.
Sadr also has many followers in Shiite-dominated southern Iraq -- his fighters clashed with U.S.-led forces in the holy city of Najaf in 2004 -- and some analysts fear that spurning Jafari could whip up their passions.
"We should include all people in the political process," Abdul Mehdi said. But he said he was not prepared to offer a deal to Sadr in the form of control over certain ministries in exchange for his support, as Jafari's opponents say the prime minister has done.
Noting the unstable political situation, Nassir Saadi, a member of parliament aligned with Sadr, said the alliance should stand with Jafari.
The pressures for Jafari to step down, he said, "are not upon Dr. Jafari, they are pressures to fragment the UIA.
"I wish that all parties inside the UIA take that into their consideration and to put in their minds the blood of the martyrs and not neglect the unity of the UIA, which is above everything," Saadi said.
Outside the capital's heavily guarded Green Zone, where Iraq's political leaders gather, violence continued.
A group calling itself the Mujahedin Shura released a statement along with a video claiming responsibility for shooting down an American helicopter Saturday south of Baghdad.
The U.S. military acknowledged the deaths of two American pilots but said it could not confirm the authenticity of the video, which it condemned.
The video purports to show the downed helicopter and insurgents dragging burning bodies.
A car bomb explosion near a popular restaurant in one Baghdad neighborhood injured 13 civilians.