As Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki faces intense pressure to assert political control, the sectarian divides that have prevented rivals from challenging his leadership are also stymieing the progress that many Iraqis say is crucial if Mr. Maliki wants to keep his job.
The key to his survival may be whether Maliki – an official in Iraq's second-largest Shiite party before he emerged as prime minister in April 2006 – can change stripes and become a truly national leader who satisfies Washington's demands as well as those of a vocal Sunni political opposition and a war-weary public.
The coming weeks will be key: The US is pressing hard for results and Iraqis face a hot summer of perhaps the worst conditions in the post-Hussein era. Meanwhile, parliament shows few signs of moving on legislation deemed crucial for national reconciliation and quelling the insurgency.
To keep up pressure, Vice President Dick Cheney arrived in Baghdad Wednesday, meeting with Iraqi officials and US military commander Gen. David Petraeus. Mr. Cheney acknowledged difficulties on the ground but told Maliki that the months ahead demand "enormous effort" from both the US and Iraq.
Maliki's supporters say he's stronger than critics suggest and predict he will unveil a "new action plan" within days with broad-based support to reassert his leadership. Also, his recent high-profile meetings with leaders from other factions, like Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi on Tuesday, are moves in that direction, they say.
"In the coming days you will see a new plan, including new security measures, based on the government's extension of its dialogue to Iraqis outside power," says Ali Aladeeb, a member of parliament and a senior leader in Maliki's Dawa Party. That "reaching out to all groups" includes "serious negotiations with the insurgent groups," Mr. Aladeeb says.
A greater nationalist approach
Predictions of Maliki's fate vary widely. Few Iraqi political leaders foresee the kind of change that would allow for marked improvement on the ground in the next few months. And that, in turn, means they don't expect conditions to change significantly by September, which US leaders – political and military – increasingly pinpoint as the make-or-break review date for the US military surge.
"If Maliki does something different quickly to show he has initiatives, then he can stay in, but I'm not optimistic," says Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of parliament who supported Maliki's rise. "If he doesn't, this government has no more than three months, it can't survive more."
What shackles Maliki most is the fact that his government is more a balancing act of political parties than a cabinet serving a national agenda set by him.
The Iraqi people crave a strong national leader to take bold steps, Mr. Othman says, but Maliki may not fit the role since he was not chosen to be that kind of leader.
"If Maliki had initiatives the Iraqi people would support him, and there is a lot he could do on his own," says Othman. "But he lacks the charisma, he has a weak personality, so we have a government of political parties."
As the first post-Hussein government, Maliki's was always going to have trouble exercising authority, so expecting quick action may simply be unrealistic, some experts say.
"The problem is not Maliki, but a government that was not set up to work in a strong national interest," says Hameed Fadhil, deputy dean of the College of Political Science at Baghdad University. "It is not based on a nationalist view but on sectarian perspectives."
He cites as an example a proposed easing of de-Baathification measures to allow more of the former Baath Party members of Saddam Hussein's regime to return to state jobs and collect benefits.
"With the heritage of the previous regime, it's not possible to change the de-Baathification law, not in a year, not in five years," says Mr. Fadhil. "The parties that represent the victims and families of victims would not allow this."
Shiites worry about diluted power
Some Iraqi political movements are pressing for a more nationalist political approach, while others – the largest Shiite parties in particular – fear that direction means a dilution of their power.
Cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's political movement, which is virulently opposed to the US military presence in Iraq, is crucial to Maliki's survival. The group is attempting to fashion a more nationalist and less sectarian image. As a result, it is reevaluating its participation in the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the parliamentary majority behind Maliki, officials within the organization say.
"We are with Maliki to make the government a success if he acts to fix the government's wrong approach," says Bahaa al-Aaraji, a senior member of the Sadrist parliamentary bloc, pointing to ministries' sectarian-based operations as an example of a "mistake." "But if he doesn't succeed in changing that, we are not with him."
The Sadrists last month withdrew six ministers from the Maliki government, while leaving their bloc of 30 legislators in the UIA.
Sadrist legislators say the policy reevaluation – which they are calling "reform and reconciliation" – could mean a further distancing from the Maliki government.
"We want to build a state, not just a government that can change, and to build that state we should include all Iraqis supporting a nationalist project," says Mr. al-Aaraji.
This "project" explains meetings that Sadrists are holding with Sunni clerics, tribal sheikhs, and Sunni political parties, he says, adding that while it is not aimed at scuttling the Maliki government, it does put pressure on him to change.
One target of the Sadrist pressure is Maliki's close association with the US military. The prime minister's dependence on the Bush administration is both necessary and a handicap for him, many experts say.
"Maliki has no choice but to go with the Bush policy, just as Bush has no alternative but to back up Maliki," says Fadhil. "They are in this boat together."
Cheney puts fire under Maliki
Despite his insistence that the government is moving ahead on critical "reconciliation" issues – an oil revenue law, de-Baathification, legislation for provincial elections – Aladeeb says talk of deadlines for the government and urgency to act is based more on American domestic political pressures than Iraqi politics.
"The Americans put pressure on our government because the president [Bush] faces pressure from the Democrats and the American people. But if we continue to move forward," he adds, "there is not limited time for this government."
That was not the message Cheney arrived with on Wednesday. US officials said the vice president's visit, only Cheney's second during this administration, was aimed at putting a fire under Iraq's leaders to move forward on reconciliation.
And according to some Iraqi legislators who openly argue for Maliki to be replaced, the confidence of Maliki backers like Aladeeb may not be well founded.
"We do not really have a national government, because some of the parties in the government do not allow it to work that way," says Usama Abdalaziz Alnujaifi, who is aligned with the Iraqi National List of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
He says that Mr. Allawi's list in parliament is in talks with other groups, including the Sunni Accordance Front, which has threatened to pull out of the government, to gauge the feasibility of cobbling together a majority that could replace the Maliki government.
"If they reach agreement, this is something that could come together within a month," Mr. Alnujaifi says.
Aladeeb acknowledges "a group that is trying to topple the government," but he discounts its ultimate success.
Meanwhile, the Kurdish leader Othman says the clock is ticking on Maliki's survival. He says Maliki's downfall could leave Iraq in the hands of a military leader by the end of the year. But he also says the ticking clock is still in Maliki's hands.
"Let him do something quickly to get the attention of the very weary Iraqi people, something about the militias or unemployment that he can do without the parliament's approval, and he can revive their support and survive," says Othman. "The answer we wait for is if he has that in him."