BAGHDAD — Iraq's first constitutionally elected government may rise or fall with the success of an ongoing U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown in Baghdad, Iraqi politicians and analysts said Saturday.
Amid growing signs that the government of national unity is beginning to fracture, experts say Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has increasingly gambled his political survival on the ambitious, 2-month-old security campaign. After a promising start, which led to a noticeable decline in certain types of sectarian attacks, violence is once more increasing.
On Wednesday, at least 172 people died in five car bombings in and around Baghdad, making it one of the deadliest days in the capital. Six days earlier, a suicide attacker infiltrated the fortified Green Zone and detonated a bomb in the Iraqi parliament cafeteria, killing a lawmaker. The daily count of victims killed execution-style is rising again, and residents are expressing outrage at some U.S. tactics, such as constructing concrete walls to separate Sunni and Shiite Muslim neighborhoods.
Such complaints could spell trouble for Maliki, critics say.
"The current government has attached itself to this security plan," said Kathim Turky Jameel, a political officer with the Iraqi National Accord, the political movement led by former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. "But what has it accomplished so far other than more explosions? The Iraqi people have run out of patience."
Allawi, who has made no secret of his desire to win back the prime minister's job, and other political rivals are moving quickly to take advantage of Maliki's troubles. Back-room jockeying and secret negotiations among major political players to realign themselves have led analysts to predict a major shakeout.
Maliki "is getting much weaker," said Wamid Nadhmi, political science professor at Baghdad University. "Because of his politics, it's hard to see how he will be allowed to remain in such a position."
On Saturday, Allawi's party said it was continuing to cobble together a rival coalition in parliament that could eventually replace Maliki.
Every week new rumors pop up about shifting alliances, internal party disputes and unlikely partnerships, including speculation that Allawi's secular bloc might join forces with the ultra-religious followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr. The two sides clashed bitterly in Najaf and Sadr City in 2004.
Over the last month, Maliki's coalition has suffered two major defections. First Al Fadila al Islamiya, or the Islamic Virtue Party, pulled its 15 members from the leading Shiite political bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance.
Then Sadr, once a major supporter of Maliki, withdrew six Cabinet ministers from the government to protest the prime minister's refusal to set a deadline for U.S. troops to leave Iraq.
Both departing parties complained about Maliki's inaction, which they blamed on the distribution of ministries based largely on sect and ethnicity, rather than political qualification or experience. A de facto quota system dividing key government jobs among Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds was used to break a deadlock in early 2006 that was preventing the newly elected government from taking office.
Maliki supporters predicted the recent defections would enable him to implement his programs. He has been promising a major Cabinet reshuffle to improve his administration's performance.
"This is only going to help him fortify his position," said Sahar Ata, a member of parliament from Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party. "Now he can put the right people in the right position."
Ata dismissed speculation that Maliki's future was in question. "We support him 100%," he said.
But Sabah Saidi, a leader of Al Fadila, predicted that other government partners would begin to reevaluate their support and perhaps join his group in defecting.
"Now many people are thinking about taking similar steps," he said. "Most of the blocs are having internal problems."
On the streets of Baghdad, support for the government is waning. Most residents back the goals of the security crackdown, but after last week's massive car bombings, victims and witnesses criticized Maliki for failing to stem the violence.
"I don't think the current government is doing its job properly," said Amin, 19, a T-shirt vendor in Baghdad who did not want to give his last name.
He and others said the unity government was foundering because sectarian-based factions do not share a vision. "Each faction has its own agenda, and each one is pulling in a different direction," Amin said.
U.S. officials have sent mixed messages about their support for Maliki. Military leaders hope a successful security program will help speed up the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops, but they are also insisting that the prime minister demonstrate progress in coming months. Specifically, the Bush administration wants Maliki to push through an agreement on sharing oil revenue and reach out to Sunnis by relaxing restrictions preventing former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from working in the government.
"The clock is ticking," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Friday in Baghdad.
Analysts say a shake-up might reflect a healthy maturing among Iraq's political parties, particularly if they realign based upon ideas and agendas, rather than ethnicity and religion.
"In that way," said professor Nadhmi, "it might be a positive sign in this very chaotic situation."
Times staff writer Said Rifai in Baghdad contributed to this report.