Pushing the legal deadline to the limit, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani Monday declared that Iraq's new parliament will convene for the first time on March 12.
But an event that was expected to bring a glimmer of hope - and the formation of a US-backed unity government - is instead being overshadowed by a perfect political storm. While Iraq's leaders are battling over the post of prime minister, sectarian bloodshed has left more than 500 dead over the past two weeks. Party militias are exerting more control over the streets, and Iraqis are fed up with a weak government and collapsing services.
The political crisis revolves around the decision by the main Shiite bloc to extend the rule of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. He edged out his rival by just one vote with the support of anti-US Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Last week, an alliance of Sunni Arabs, Kurds, and others called for Mr. Jaafari to step down and a new candidate to come forward. The call for a new premier followed shortly after the deadly bombing of an important Shiite shrine in Samarra sparked a rash of the sectarian violence between Shiites and Sunni Arabs, sliding Iraq further into civil conflict.
"The most likely scenario is the worst," says Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at Queen Mary, University of London. "[Jaafari] staggers through, with Kurds and Sunnis and others undermining him. So you get a vastly weaker prime minister, backed by radicals."
The crisis has laid bare a deepening divide within Iraq's majority Shiite community. The other contender was Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, backed by the faction of Sadr rival Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who has portrayed himself as a technocrat and centrist who can get the job done.
Forming a stable government is seen by US officials as a key step to enabling the start of any military withdrawal. A more distant goal, but one required before any US exit, is to ensure that Iraqi police and security forces are 2capable of halting sectarian violence and coping with the insurgency.
Jaafari has been widely blamed in Iraq for permitting the violence to erupt out of control - yielding a week of sectarian killings and attacks on mosques that mostly targeted Sunni Arabs - after the gold roof of the Askariya Shrine in Samarra was destroyed on Feb. 22.
Days of curfew finally brought relative calm. But insurgent violence continued Monday, with eight car bombs - five of them in Baghdad alone - that took at least 28 lives, according to news agencies. One morning blast struck a packed market in Baquba, 40 miles northeast of Baghdad, killing six, including two children. Two of the car bombs, one driven by a suicide bomber, struck at Mahmudiyah, 25 miles south of the capital.
Sunni Arabs blame the lethal result on Jaafari's inability to control Shiite militias and Shiite-dominated security forces, as well as a strategic inability to come to grips with the insurgency. Kurds further took issue with Jaafari's trip to Ankara, Turkey, without cabinet approval, which has strained relations with Iraqi Kurds.
Jaafari's entourage included no Iraqi Kurds, who hold top government positions in Baghdad, but some minority Iraqi Turkomen who are often at odds with ethnic Kurds, but have close ties to Turkey.
"The Jaafari government has a long history of failure," says Mustafa Alani, head of the Security and Terrorism program at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. "Everything has deteriorated: security, basic services, corruption. There is no major achievement."
"Weak government contributes [to the violence], state infrastructure is disintegrating gradually, and militias are taking over," says Mr. Alani. "Those people [militiamen] are becoming more loyal to their parties than the state. I don't see how this can be changed."
The convening of parliament begins a 60-day period in which a new head of state must be elected, and a new prime minister and cabinet agreed upon. Lobbying has been fierce for weeks. On Sunday, President Talabani increased pressure against Jaafari, by sending an adviser to push the case with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's preeminent Shiite cleric, in Najaf.
"We reject Jaafari because we believe that Iraq needs a government of national unity and new faces," said envoy Barham Saleh, who is also planning minister, after the meetings.
Sunni Arab leaders have found unlikely champions in US diplomats, trying to ensure their place at the table of a unity government.
They have also been most recent targets of apparent revenge attacks. Gunmen on Sunday killed the nephew and cousin of Sheikh Harith al-Dari, leader of the main Sunni Arab religious group, the Muslim Clerics Association.
Last Thursday, Adnan al-Dulaimi, leader of the Iraqi Accordance Front, part of the Sunni parliamentary bloc trying to oust Jaafari, survived an assassination attempt on his convoy that killed one guard and wounded five others.
In a separate incident the same day, a convoy of bodyguards for Defense Minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi, also a Sunni Arab, was attacked, killing one guard and wounding others.
"You can argue that Iraq has been without a government since the fall of the [Hussein] regime, and after three years we are in a very messy situation," says Hassan Bazaaz, an aide to Adnan al-Dulaimi. "We are on the brink of a civil war; in fact, we are in a civil war. The reason is because there is no government."
The December national election was meant to usher in Iraq's first postinvasion permanent government. But the hopes of Iraqis expressed on election day - almost as vociferous and hopeful as they had been when they first went to the polls in January 2005 - have faded with the passing of time, and amid political deadlock.
The result is growing, popular exasperation.
"What difference does [a new government] make?" asks an Iraqi political analyst who asked not to be named. "The real crisis is the daily killing of Iraqis, which no one writes about. This is because of the US occupation. Whether Jaafari gets back in is of no concern to Iraqis. Who is going to stop [the violence]?"
Any hope of effective rule will require real change, regardless of who holds the PM post.
"A new government along the old line will be weak, and divided on the sectarian side; they are only concerned about how much they can steal," says the Iraqi analyst. "The ministries of Interior and Defense tell you everything is fine and under control. If you listen to the minister of electricity, you would think people live in a state of full electric power. The minister of oil says Iraqis are living with everything."
That sentiment echoes Khalaf al-Olayan, another Sunni leader in parliament, who wrote on the Iraqi Accordance Front website that Iraq has gone from "bad to worse" with Jaafari.
"Jaafari's government failed to solve the chaos that followed the Samarra explosions and did not take any measures to solve the security crisis that could have pushed the country into civil war," wrote Mr. Olayan.
Another Jaafari government would mean "much more of the same - a many headed hydra, without the power to nail down the [pro-Shiite and abuse] problems in the Ministry of Interior," says Mr. Dodge at Queen Mary.
Sadr supports Jaafari "not because of who he is, but who he is not," says Dodge. "They would nominate anyone, to get around Abdul Mahdi getting it."