BAGHDAD — They've met daily for weeks, made noises about creating a coalition government designed to reduce sectarian distrust, and even been threatened by the US with withholding of aid.
Even so, Iraqi politicians are no closer to compromise or agreement on a government than they were when parliamentary elections were held more than two months ago.
For now, this leaves a lame-duck government in place. The US is pressing hard - particularly to limit the rising influence of Shiite political parties with ties to Iran. But Iraq's ethnic and sectarian factions seem to be digging in over mutually exclusive positions, even as their rhetoric against their opponents intensifies.
"We would work with anyone committed to the unity of Iraq, the stability of Iraq, and the freedom of Iraq,'' says Saleh Mutlaq, a leader of the Sunni Arab coalition that won 20 percent of the parliamentary seats. "The problem is, not everyone in the parliament agrees to these principles."
Mr. Mutlaq, who says the Dec. 15 election was rigged against Sunni Arabs by the current Shiite-led government and wants the constitution scrapped, said negotiations have convinced him that "forming a government soon is not a real possibility."
Iraq's Shiite parties won 47 percent of seats, while two large Sunni Arab groups took 20 percent. The Kurdish coalition took 19 percent and a secular party led by US favorite Iyad Allawi won 9 percent.
While the Shiites would seem to be in the driver's seat, and have nominated current Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to remain, he is unpopular with the US because of his Islamist politics and ties to Iran.
US officials have mooted the possibility that a coalition of secular politicians led by Mr. Allawi could be formed to deny the Shiites control, perhaps by exploiting splits within the Shiite coalition. But Mutlaq and other Sunni leaders make it clear that while they don't trust the Shiites, whom they blame for targeted sectarian killings, they have little in common with the Kurds, who favor independence and are interested in control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
"The Kurds are simply trying to play all sides against each other to get the most for themselves,'' says Mutlaq. "They are only powerful because of American support."
Monday, US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad issued an unusually blunt warning to leaders. "The fundamental problem in Iraq is one of sectarianism and ethnic conflict,'' he said, calling for a government that includes all factions. He added that if security ministries such as defense andinterior go to those the US deems "sectarian," hundreds of millions in funds for building the police and military will be cut off.
This was widely interpreted by Iraqi politicians as a slap at the Shiites, particularly Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, whose police and paramilitary forces have tortured and murdered Sunni Arabs.
Earlier this month, the US military said it had arrested a number of Interior Ministry employees who were running a death squad in Baghdad. Mr. Jabr is a former senior leader of the Badr Brigade, an Iranian-trained militia close to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), one of the two main parties in the Shiite coalition. Sunni leaders like Adnan al-Dulaimi have said continued Shiite control of the ministry will keep them from joining the government.
But the Shiites want control of these ministries, particularly Interior, and say the results of the election entitle them to this.
Jalaluddin al-Sagheer, a senior leader of SCIRI, says control of the ministry is crucial for the Shiites. He also echoes the view of Shiite politicians that the US is tilting toward the Sunnis, who dominated leadership under Saddam Hussein.
"The most sectarian person I've ever seen is the American ambassador," says Sagheer. "He's not talking like a diplomat, but as someone here to pressure us and help other political parties. Why are they submitting to the demands of terrorists?"
Many Iraqis fear the delays will hurt security as well as basics like fuel and electricity, which languish below prewar levels.
"While the politicians are looking out for their interests, no one is looking out for ours,'' says Emad Hassan, a Shiite shopkeeper. "When are they going to focus on keeping the lights on?"