BAGHDAD — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and Tariq Hashimi, the country's Sunni vice president, faced each other across the room as the latter spoke angrily of the bad blood between Sunni and Shiite officials.
A hush fell over the room as Hashimi demanded to know whether the prime minister had been accusing his political bloc of being infiltrated by terrorists.
"Are you talking about us? If you are ... we would ask for proof," said Hashimi, according to his account of a recent closed-door meeting of Iraq's top political and national security officials. "I am treated as an opponent," he said, his voice rising. "If you continue treating me like this, it is better for me to quit."
Maliki sat in silence.
Iraq's government is teetering on the edge. Maliki's Cabinet is filled with officials who are deeply estranged from one another and more loyal to their parties than to the government as a whole. Some are jostling to unseat the prime minister. Few, if any, have accepted the basic premise of a government whose power is shared among each of Iraq's warring sects and ethnic groups.
Maliki is the man U.S. officials are counting on to bring Iraq's civil war under control, yet he seems unable to break the government's deadlock.
Even Maliki's top political advisor, Sadiq Rikabi, says he doubts the prime minister will be able to win passage of key legislation ardently sought by U.S. officials, including a law governing the oil industry and one that would allow more Sunni Arabs to gain government jobs.
"We hope to achieve some of them, but solving the Iraqi problems and resolving the different challenges in the [next] three months would need a miracle," Rikabi said.
Interviews with a broad range of Iraqi and Western officials paint a portrait of Maliki as an increasingly isolated and ineffectual figure, lacking in confidence and unable to trust people.
Iraq's intractable problems would challenge even the most skilled of politicians. But skilled politicians are in short supply here. Most of Iraq's current leaders grew to adulthood as members of underground militias, skilled in the arts of conspiracy, not compromise. And many of those leaders appear to believe that their side can still win a decisive military victory in the country's civil war.
Maliki, 57, shares that background and world view. A longtime Shiite Muslim leader, he fled to Iran soon after Saddam Hussein took power and spent the subsequent years in exile in Iran and Syria, plotting Hussein's overthrow. He was never expected to become prime minister and emerged as a compromise candidate after his Islamic Dawa Party's first two choices were rejected by the Americans and the Kurds.
Nonetheless, he took office amid hopes that he could succeed where others had not.
"Maliki had an amazing opportunity," said a senior Iraqi politician, speaking on condition of anonymity because he still does business regularly with the prime minister. "He had amazing support from Bush. Amazing support even from the regional countries, the Arabs -- even Saudi Arabia at the start."
"He did not seek the right tactics. The guys around him did not enable him to do his job. All of these guys around him were small-minded and sectarian."
Now, fellow Iraqi officials describe the prime minister as dangerously out of touch. They accuse him of insulating himself with a tightknit group of advisors from his party and of shutting others out of decision making. Rikabi, Maliki's political advisor, denied that allegation.
Parliament recently humiliated the prime minister by twice refusing to approve his nominations for six Cabinet positions left vacant for nearly two months. A Western diplomat in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity because he deals with the government, said Maliki had alienated would-be partners.
"Maliki is to blame for that because he has surrounded himself with his Dawa colleagues in his prime minister's office," the diplomat said. "It is a very big problem and doesn't promote trust.
"He isn't a natural leader. You either have it or you don't."
Kurdish leaders in Baghdad, who were once strong allies, have become irritated by Maliki's behavior, said Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman. "They complain about him. They say he does all these things without telling us."
The most problematic relationship in the government remains the one between Maliki and Hashimi. Their failure to find a way of sharing power feeds into the violent struggle between Sunnis and Shiites on the street.
Some of Maliki's advisors consider Hashimi's faction, which holds 44 seats in the Iraqi parliament, a front for terrorists. A few of its members have been linked to violence in Baghdad and have had their homes raided and their bodyguards detained.