Five months after Iraq's last election, the effort to create a national unity government to reconcile warring factions by sharing cabinet posts among Kurds and Shiite and Sunni Arabs is foundering. The latest impediment is squabbling among the dominant Shiites parties.
The country's new Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, was expected to unveil his cabinet Sunday. Instead, a member of the Shiite Islamist United Iraqi Alliance confirmed it was pulling out of the government, angry at the way seats are being distributed.
Sheikh Sabah al-Saadi, the slim and youthful spokesman for the Shiite Islamist Fadillah party, confirmed that his party was leaving the Shiite coalition and "nothing will convince us to change our minds. We want a good government with honest people in it, and we're not going to violate our own principles."
Asked if that implied the people being considered for senior posts are dishonest, he declined to answer directly, instead complaining that both Kurds and other Shiite parties are "demanding posts for people who are loyal to them, rather than for people who are competent."
The Fadillah party, which controls the local government in the oil-rich southern city of Basra, grew angry just two days ago when it became clear that its favored choice for the oil ministry, current minister Hashem al-Hashemi, wasn't going to be awarded the job again.
While Mr. Saadi insisted that his party's withdrawal from talks was a matter of principle, it boiled down to control of key posts, which provide access to cash and jobs for party loyalists. Asked if his party might vote to allow a new government in, despite it's opposition, he said "you'll have to wait and see whether we put our hands up when the time comes."
Iraqis refer to the elaborate dance among the legislators as the battle for kurashi, or "chairs," from which they can build up power bases and distribute largess.
"This negotiation now is completely irrelevant to our lives,'' says Isra Sammi, a student at Baghdad University. "Benefits are supposed to flow from the government to the people, but instead the benefits just flow back to the leaders of the government and their friends."
Even as a true unity government looked less likely, violence across Iraq Sunday underscored why bringing Iraq's factions together is so vital.
The worst attack was twin suicide car-bombs that struck near the front gate of the Baghdad International Airport, which also serves as the main US base in Iraq, killing 14. Two other bombs targeting police killed 10 people, most civilian bystanders, in the capital.
In Diyala Province to the northeast of Baghdad, at least six minor Shiite shrines were destroyed in overnight bomb attacks. Though there were no casualties in those blasts, insurgents who share the Salafy ideology of Al Qaeda, which views Shiites as apostates, have been trying to stoke Iraq's low-intensity civil war.
A Feb. 22 attack that destroyed theAskariyah Shrine - a major Shiite pilgrimage center - in nearby Samarra touched off the country's worst round of sectarian killing.
In Parliament, Sunni Arabs also complained bitterly that they feel their concerns are being brushed aside by Mr. Maliki, who hails from the Dawa Party, one of the two main parties in the Shiite alliance.
"When we first met Mr. Maliki we thought he was dedicated to real political reconciliation, but unfortunately we're seeing something different now,'' says Saleh al-Mutlak, a leader of the Sunni Arab Iraqi National Front, which controls 11 seats in Parliament. "In reality, they are simply dividing power among sectarian parties."
Mr. Mutlaq said the interior, defense, and foreign ministry portfolios are the biggest sticking points at the moment, particularly complaining that the Kurdish alliance is "demanding far more posts than they deserve."
The dominant Shiite alliance now controls 41 percent of the legislature and the Kurds, who control 19 percent, are the only natural ally who could get them to the simple majority threshold to seat the new cabinet. While the largely secular Kurds, who are most interested in the independence of their northern region, and the Shiite Islamists have little in common, legislators like Mutlaq say the Shiites may cut a deal with the Kurds to avoid satisfying Sunni Arab demands.
Meanwhile Baha al-Araji, a Shiite legislator loyal to militant cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and a member of the Shiite alliance, complained that both Sunnis and Kurds are making unrealistic demands, and that "meddling" from the US government was preventing a cabinet from being formed.
Mr. Araji, whose party controls 30 seats, said the Shiite bloc, which after the withdrawal of the Fadillah party now controls 115 seats in Parliament, might unilaterally declare a new government Tuesday if other parties don't give ground. He also said that Maliki may announce a partial cabinet lineup - leaving the sensitive questions of the defense and interior ministries to a later date.
Current Interior Minister Bayan Jaber, whose portfolio controls the domestic police and civilian intelligence agencies, is a loyalist of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and a former commander of its militia, the Badr Brigade.
Sunni lawmakers have repeatedly blamed him for allowing Shiite death squads to flourish among Interior Ministry commandos, though that's a charge he denies. But SCIRI leaders have insisted on maintaining their control of one of the country's most strategic posts.