As Shiites prepare to take ownership of Iraq's new government, power struggles over the post of prime minister are exposing the fragility of the winning United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) - as well as a fractious political landscape.
Islamist Dawa Party leader Ibrahim Jaafari had been heavily favored to take the post last week. But a challenge by the head of the secular Iraqi National Congress, Ahmed Chalabi, threw the process into extended negotiations, even as Finance Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi first withdrew and then reappeared as a possible compromise candidate.
The protracted dispute is raising concerns about the new government's prospects for dealing with the far more divisive challenge of writing a new constitution - as well as the insurgency and the restoration of basic services.
"Jobs, electricity, and security are what Iraqis need and are demanding, and if this government gets wrapped up in obscure debates about constitutional niceties then this thing will consume them," says Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at Queen Mary University of London. "The great danger is that those 275 individuals will go into the 'green zone' and disappear into the internecine politics of the green zone."
Violence over the weekend, during which Shiites marked the religious holiday of Ashura, underscored the ongoing threats from the insurgency. More than 90 people were killed in two days of attacks. Suicide bombs exploded across Baghdad and other cities Friday and Saturday, targeting Shiites in particular, and including crowds at funerals.
Most of the blame for the country's troubles is still directed at the US. But with the election over - and with Iraqi forces taking more responsibility for security - Iraqis are increasingly expecting results from their leaders.
But progress demands unity among Shiite leaders, say members of the United Iraqi Alliance.And its members' ambitions are threatening to pull the alliance apart. "We didn't realize Chalabi would insist (so strongly) on being prime minister," said one official from the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), adding that he feared the UIA was on the brink of collapse.
Several blocs within the alliance are vying for top government positions. The most powerful are SCIRI and the Dawa Party. Also trying to leverage their power are followers of the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr; Mr. Chalabi; and a group of independent candidates who have won the favor of the top Shiite authority in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Over the weekend, SCIRI leader Abdel-Aziz Hakim met with Chalabi and offered to make him the top financial overseer in Iraq, responsible for the oil, trade, and finance ministries in exchange for him withdrawing, according to the SCIRI official. A spokesman for Chalabi confirmed the meeting but would not say what was discussed.
SCIRI members are also trying to keep their man, Adel Abdul Mahdi, in the race, after first withdrawing him last week. The group's members are trying to convince Mr. Hakim to seek support for Mr. Mahdi with interim prime minister Iyad Allawi and Kurdish groups, the next two largest blocs in the national assembly.
Mahdi's position had been weakened because many in the UIA felt his Islamic credentials were lacking. Mahdi supported the Communist and Baath parties in his youth and joined the Islamic movement only when SCIRI formed in 1981. Mr. Jaafari, on the other hand, has been involved with the religious conservative Dawa party since the 1960s.
The dispute is expected to be resolved this week, either through a consensus or by a vote among UIA members.Butkeeping members unified may mean trading top jobs like baseball cards.
Chalabi's assertiveness, for example, may be rewarded with control of billions of dollars of oil revenue and trading contracts. If Jaafari wins as prime minister, other groups in the alliance may insist that no one else from his party get a top post. SCIRI may also demand control of several ministries, particularly the interior ministry.
Chalabi had only about 15 supporters on the UIA list. But earlier this month he teamed up with the followers of Mr. Sadr, adding about 30 supporters. Chalabi's spokesman says other UIA members also back him, and puts the number at around 80.
The alliance of Sadr and Chalabi couldn't have been between two people of more disparate ideologies.
Chalabi is a secularist and was once the darling of the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency, which used his information to build a case for war in Iraq and envisioned him one day leading the country. He fell out of favor last May over allegations that he was passing intelligence information to Iran. He has also struggled to shake off charges that he embezzled funds from Petra Bank in Jordan, which he founded and which later collapsed. He adamantly denies the allegations.
By contrast, Sadr's Mahdi Army led bloody uprisings against the US last spring and summer, and is avowedly religious, even setting up religious courts based on sharia, or Islamic law, just months after war ended. Sadr boycotted the election but his supporters ran as independents.
The unusual pairing started last spring when Chalabi served as a negotiator during clashes between Sadr and US forces, winning him credibility in Sadr's eyes, according to Chalabi spokesman Haider Mousawi. The fighting showed Sadr's ability to muster thousands of supporters across the country, something Chalabi lacks. Chalabi has strong ties to the US and West, which Sadr lacks.
But two weeks ago, Sadr supporters decided to pledge their support to SCIRI as it became clear that Chalabi was not going to be a major player in handing out jobs or writing the constitution.
All the infighting may slow the real work of addressing the country's formidable security and services challenges.
Such inaction would strengthen the hand of the independents in the alliance whom Sistani favors. He holds the unquestioned loyalty of most Shiites, and no politician or party will stay in power if Sistani speaks against it.
"Sistani's dual platform was to lessen the influence of Dawa and SCIRI and the influence of the US. He may have succeeded with the second, but the opposite has happened with SCIRI and Dawa,'' says Mr. Dodge. "He's unhappy with the parties because they didn't get out and mobilize the population. They were ... negotiating with the US when they should have been focused on the people."