Six months after agreeing to form a national unity government, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and his secular rival Iyad Allawi are again exchanging insults and cannot agree on such basic issues as who should run the nation's police and army.
The rift, though unlikely to send Iraq back into sectarian violence, does have Iraqi and Western analysts concerned that the country will continue on a dysfunctional path as American troops move to complete their withdrawal by year's end, nearly nine years after the invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.
Maliki, in a letter and a news conference, has expressed disgust with Allawi, a former prime minister who has responded with his own set of grievances.
It is a sharp turnaround from the optimism in November when the nation's political factions ended eight months of bitter competition after too-close-to-call parliamentary elections.
At the time, Iraqi and U.S. officials touted a breakthrough called the Barzani initiative, named after Massoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan. That deal called for a national unity government and was supposed to create a consultative higher policy body.
Instead, any dreams of harmony have dissipated. Allawi, whose secular Iraqiya bloc, backed by Sunni Arabs, won 91 seats, and Maliki, whose mainly Shiite slate won 89 seats, appear intent on trying to best the other. In early March, Allawi announced that he would not head the new consultative body. Since then tensions have simmered.
Letters leaked to local news organizations and websites and confirmed by aides on both sides, amount to a showcase of contempt.
At a news conference Wednesday, Maliki said he had received about 20 letters from Allawi and boasted that he had answered only one of them.
Maliki's response began by noting that he had received too many letters from Allawi and this might be the only time he would write back. He then went on to accuse Allawi of ruining their unity government.
"You personally were the first who openly gave up the commitment," he wrote, mentioning how Allawi led his bloc out of the parliament during a session in November for the swearing in of Jalal Talabani as president of Iraq.
"I regret to say that what is coming from you in attitudes and statements since the beginning doesn't indicate seriousness in shouldering the responsibilities. It indicates an understanding of partnership as sharing in the spoils and gains and escaping from responsibilities."
At the news conference Wednesday, Maliki made veiled threats against the Iraqiya bloc and other rivals, warning he could dissolve the government and parliament if he felt they were not acting appropriately.
He also said that Iraq's various political factions need to consult soon on whether any American troops should stay in Iraq after year's end. However, in private, Western observers and Iraqi officials are doubtful there will be any sizeable U.S. troop presence past December.
In turn, Allawi has written that he was "astonished" by Maliki's attitude, and described the prime minister's allegations as "far from reality."
Allawi allies say that if the feud does not end, they may seek to drive Maliki out of office through a vote of no confidence in the parliament.
"In his last term, he stayed on because the United States stepped in five times to stop the parliament from having a vote of no confidence," one senior Iraqiya member said on condition of anonymity. "This time the Americans don't have any power over us."
Even if the government were to collapse, many Western observers believe, it would be of little concern to the United States, as it leaves Iraq.
"There are a lot of dysfunctional governments," said Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East analyst with the Washington-based Congressional Research Service. "It is not going to get anyone's attention unless you have massive violence."
Salman and Jaff are staff writers in The Times' Baghdad bureau.