In Iraq, an impasse as U.S. troops draw down

With less than a month to go before the U.S. military completes its drawdown to 50,000 troops and political negotiations still deadlocked, it now seems all but certain that the American combat mission here will end without an elected Iraqi government in place.

Most politicians are predicting that the 5-month-old impasse will continue at least until September, and that a new government could take even longer. Iraqis fear violence will intensify as tensions increase between political factions and as insurgents seek to take advantage of the vacuum left by the departing troops.

Thousands of U.S. troops have already left, even though the process of forming a government has hardly progressed since the March 7 election. American officials stress that nothing will stand in the way of reducing the size of the force to 50,000 by the end of August.

But uncertainty deepened Sunday after the effective collapse of an already frayed alliance between the two major Shiite Muslim blocs that had been seeking to block the candidacy of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite whose support comes mostly from Sunnis.

Ahmad Chalabi, a senior figure in the Iraqi National Alliance, said the group was severing negotiations with the current prime minister, Nouri Maliki, and would only resume talks with Maliki’s State of Law coalition if it ditched him as its candidate.

The move intensified pressure on Maliki, who is facing increasingly harsh criticism of his refusal to relinquish power despite failing to win support from any of the other blocs.

“It’s becoming clear that it’s going to be very difficult for him to remain as prime minister,” said Entifadh Qanbar, a spokesman for Chalabi. “His insistence to stay in power is the main reason for the delay.”

Removing Maliki from the equation is unlikely to produce a swift resolution, however, because there is no sign that majority Shiites are close to an agreement on a single candidate to replace him. The INA alone, which won 70 seats and includes the faction led by the anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr, already has two.

The elections resulted in a three-way standoff involving the largest blocs in parliament. Allawi’s alliance finished with two seats more than Maliki’s, and the INA finished third.

There was no indication that Maliki was prepared to give way, and members of his State of Law bloc rushed to insist that he was their only candidate. But there have been whispers that members of his coalition could revolt if they feel his candidacy is jeopardizing their hold on power.

There were signs of strain within his coalition Sunday, with some of his supporters insisting they were still committed to the alliance with the INA and others saying that Maliki would now be likely to intensify negotiations with Allawi.

Allawi insists that because his Iraqiya coalition won the most seats in parliament, he has the right to form the next government.

Underpinning the machinations is the Sunni-Shiite divide that propelled Iraq to the brink of civil war in 2006, as well as a broader regional divide between Iran, which supports the Shiite alliance, and the mostly Sunni Arab states, which back Allawi. The U.S. has sought to promote an Allawi-Maliki deal, though it says it has no preferred candidate.

In a possible indicator of the risk of increased violence, figures released by the Iraqi government Sunday showed a sharp jump in Iraqi casualties to 535 in July from 284 in June. That would make July the bloodiest month in more than two years. The U.S. military disputed the figures, however, saying just 222 people died in July, including six U.S. soldiers.

The U.S. military rarely releases civilian casualty figures, and when it does they are routinely lower than those given by the Iraqi government. But there was no immediate explanation for such a large discrepancy.

However, there is little doubt that violence could rise if the deadlock persists, said Kurdish legislator Mahmoud Othman, who predicted that there would be no resolution to the government impasse at least until late September.

An attack in the staunchly Sunni Baghdad neighborhood of Adhamiya last week raised alarms. Insurgents overran an Iraqi army checkpoint and raised the flag of the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq, killing 16 people, including 10 members of the security forces.

“When you don’t have political stability you can’t have real security,” Othman said.

The timetable for a U.S. withdrawal set by President Obama after he took office was predicated on a scheduled January election that was expected to produce a new government well before August. But the election was delayed by political bickering, and the finely balanced outcome has made it harder than expected to reach consensus on a new government.

U.S. troop levels have fallen to 65,000 from the peak of 166,000 in 2007.

After Sept. 1, the U.S. military’s combat role will officially end, and Operation Iraqi Freedom will be renamed Operation New Dawn, signaling a shift in the focus from fighting to advising and training Iraqi security forces.

But officials also stress that the U.S. military will retain considerable firepower until the end of 2011, when all American forces are scheduled to leave under an agreement with Iraq’s government.

“I would say that 50,000 troops on the ground is still a significant capability,” said Maj. Gen. Stephen Lanza, a U.S. military spokesman. “There is still a lot we can do with the capability we have, and we will still have influence here.”

Times staff writers Raheem Salman and Riyadh Mohammed contributed to this report.