Key partners in Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's government may seek the ouster of the Shiite Muslim leader if he fails to move quickly on stalled benchmark reforms and on sharing in decision making.
Threats of a possible parliamentary vote of no confidence have come in recent weeks from the Kurdish Alliance and the Shiite party Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, Maliki's last major defenders, which, along with the largest Sunni political party, have suggested Vice President Adel Abdul Mehdi, a Shiite, as a possible alternative.
The parties have told Maliki that he must build an effective ruling coalition.
"If he does not, he will hurt himself and he will hurt Iraq. Then the parties should seek other options," said Rosh Shawais, a senior Kurdish Alliance leader.
Iraqi leaders, worried that Baghdad could slip back into sectarian war, are demanding quick improvement in the government's performance in areas such as providing services and creating jobs for former Sunni insurgents.
"Whether it will come to a vote of no confidence or not, it remains to be seen, but the agreed policy, the agreed road map, is that sweeping fundamental reforms are urgently needed. Otherwise the consequences will be dire," said Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, with the Kurdish Alliance.
The warnings to Maliki have come in public statements, private communications and closed-door meetings since late December, when the Kurdish Alliance accused him in a letter of running a dysfunctional one-party state.
The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the main ally of Maliki's Shiite-run Islamic Dawa Party, promptly followed with a public rebuke during a Friday sermon. The Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni grouping in parliament, announced a political alliance with the Kurds.
Faced with a mini-revolt, Maliki held a meeting Jan. 14 with Iraq's three-man presidency council, with which he had feuded since late summer.
The council -- President Jalal Talabani of the Kurdish Alliance; and the two vice presidents, Tariq Hashimi, a Sunni with the Iraqi Islamic Party, and Abdul Mehdi, of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council -- presented Maliki a paper sketching their vision of how the government should be run. Maliki had spurned an earlier draft in August and had stopped meeting with the council.
The document calls on Maliki to set all national policies in consultation with the presidency council and to form an efficient technocrat government, slimmed down from its current size of nearly 40 ministries.
'Not about personality'
As a guarantee, the skeptical Talabani, Hashimi and Abdul Mehdi inserted a clause in the paper that said the presidency reserved the right to call for a parliamentary vote of no confidence against the prime minister if he failed to move seriously on reforms or to consult them.
"We are giving Al Maliki another opportunity to prove he is very much interested to change the course," Hashimi said.
"We have said no problem if you are prepared to make the required reforms," he said. "We don't have any reservations about you staying in power. It's not about personality; it's about how the country is going to be run. If he fails, definitely the country will be in need of a replacement."
Maliki supporters, for their part, appear deeply suspicious of the presidency council and reluctant to cede ground.
"They want to take some authority from the prime minister," said Sami Askari, a parliament member and part of Maliki's inner circle. "If Hashimi takes anything from Maliki, that means Adel Abdul Mehdi will take something as well."
Advisors to Maliki have confirmed the existence of the document and the prime minister's acceptance, but it has yet to be signed.
"There is such a thing," said Haidar Abadi, a parliament member with Maliki's party. "I don't know if it will come to that. If things go to the worse, they can ask for a vote of no confidence. It's a constitutional right. That's how we see it, and we don't reject it."
Humam Hamoodi, a senior leader from the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the largest party in Maliki's 85-seat Shiite bloc, said the document was meant to hold Maliki accountable.
"It is also to make these meetings more serious and more productive," he said. "We think through pressure and advice and support we can make it better."
Oil is an issue
The deepest disputes remain between Maliki and the Kurdish Alliance. The Kurds believe that Maliki has reneged on promises to bring to a parliamentary vote the draft of a national oil law approved by the Cabinet a year ago. The legislation invited regional governments to sign their own oil contracts with Baghdad's approval and to welcome joint ventures. Instead, they say, Maliki has thrown his weight behind a radically reworked draft law that the Kurds say peels back the regions' rights. The legislation remains in limbo.
The Kurds also believe that the Islamic Dawa Party has permitted the Kurds to be stymied in parliament on issues such as the funding of its regional paramilitary force and the Kurdistan region's 17% share of the national budget. The latter dispute has delayed passage of the 2008 budget. Since the latest effort at compromise between Maliki and the presidency council, one piece of major legislation has passed parliament -- a law to reinstate former civil servants from Saddam Hussein's government -- but the presidency council has criticized the legislation.
Dawa members believe that neither the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council nor the Kurds will remove powerful party figures from ministries in the name of forming a technocrat government. But the Kurds, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and the Islamic Party have started to coalesce around Abdul Mehdi as a possible alternative to Maliki.
"If you ask me who could replace Maliki, there are millions of Iraqis who would be qualified to be prime minister, but on top of the list is definitely Dr. Adel [Adbul Mehdi]," Hashimi said. "I can say that he could be the man in case our intended reforms reach an impasse."
Hamoodi of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council acknowledged that Abdul Mehdi still had much support within the broader Shiite alliance. "Half of the [alliance] wants Adel Abdul Mehdi to be the prime minister, but anyway we have a prime minister now and he has had success especially in the security file," Hamoodi said.
The senior parliament member pointed out that Maliki remained weak.
"The Sunnis have problems with him; the Kurds have problems with him; even the Shiites have problems," Hamoodi said.
Maliki confidant Askari accused Abdul Mehdi of traveling to Tehran last month to engineer Maliki's ouster but said he was rebuffed by the Iranian government
Abdul Mehdi, who twice narrowly lost in his bids for the premiership after Iraq's two national elections in 2005, is a favorite in Washington, where he is seen as a relative moderate, capable of working with all of Iraq's religious and ethnic groups. He has denied any wish to unseat Maliki.
Minding the U.S.
A government official with the Shiite bloc cautioned that the Americans were still opposed to replacing Maliki -- particularly in a U.S. presidential election year and with no ironclad assurance that a new Cabinet could be named in less than four or five months.
A U.S. State Department official, who was not authorized to speak to reporters, said the Americans doubted such a coalition to oust him existed.
The Iraqi official, who also did not have permission to talk to journalists, said the factions were looking for the votes necessary for a no-confidence resolution to pass in the parliament.
"I think they will do it if they can agree on a person who can take over the Cabinet after a vote of no confidence, but we don't have the formula yet," he said. "A lot of people are hoping they will come up with something soon."
Times staff writers Raheem Salman, Saif Hameed, Saif Rasheed, Said Rifai and Caesar Ahmed contributed to this report.