BAGHDAD // Iraq's prime minister Nouri Al Maliki yesterday moved to sack one of his deputies in a growing political confrontation that threatens the collapse of the fragile coalition government, plunging the country into renewed chaos.
Violence flared in Baghdad's notorious Haifa Street area last night as the dispute between Mr Al Maliki's ruling National Alliance bloc and his rivals, Iraqiyya - uneasy members of his unity administration - escalated dramatically.
The crisis exploded just as the final US troops crossed the border into Kuwait, ending the nine-year American military presence. But instead of celebrations heralding the much-trumpeted start of Iraq's new, independent future, Baghdad lurched towards a political showdown that cuts to the very heart of a deeply divided, conflict-ravaged nation.
Mr Al Maliki formally asked Iraq's parliament to withdraw its confidence in his deputy prime minister, Saleh Al Mutlak, a leading Iraqiyya member, who has been an outspoken critic of the premier, recently comparing him to the ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
The call for a vote of no confidence in a principle Iraqiyya figure came a day after the bloc had suspended its participation in parliament, in protest at what it says is Mr Al Maliki's illegal monopoly over decision-making.
Rather than force the prime minister to the negotiating table, however, the move resulted in him upping the ante.
Another key Iraqiyya figure, the vice president, Tarek Al Hashemi, has been accused by Mr Al Maliki's security services of involvement in terrorist attacks. Two of his bodyguards were detained at Baghdad's airport yesterday, although Mr Al Hashemi himself was not arrested.
Those moves have added to a fear among the prime minister's critics that he is seeking to eliminate rivals and consolidate power.Iraqiyya warned it would pull out of the coalition government unless Mr Al Maliki agreed to seek a solution that respects "democracy and civil institutions".
"Iraq is now in a very difficult position. This is a critical time," said Eytab Al Douri, an MP with the Iraqiyya bloc. "If solutions are not found quickly, Iraq will be heading towards sectarian and ethnic divisions, and a return to civil war."
Mr Al Maliki's supporters have accused Iraqiyya of brinkmanship, and said all they need do to avert a crisis is appoint another member of their party to replace Mr Al Mutlak, rather than try to collapse the government.
"The comments by Saleh Al Mutlak against the prime minister crossed a red line and are totally unacceptable," said Ali Al Sehah, an MP in Mr Al Maliki's group. "We want to keep the national coalition government and we are working to solve the problem so that this can remain the case."
Last night there was little indication Iraqiyya would be prepared to sacrifice Mr Al Mutlak to cut a deal. Nahida Al Daeni, an Iraqqiya MP, said most of its parliamentary members already wanted to pull out from the government, including withdrawing its cabinet ministers.
Iraqiyya has been reluctant to take that step because the prime minister could still find coalition partners for a parliamentary majority to stay in power.
While legally and technically possible, however, if Mr Al Maliki ruled without Iraqiyya it would be widely seen as breaking a promise to cooperate with the group that won more parliamentary seats than his own bloc in last year's elections.
Those elections were bitterly fought and highly divisive. Iraqiyya narrowly outscored the National Alliance but failed to secure a parliamentary majority. Crucially, Iraqiyya also won support from Sunni and Shiite voters, while the National Alliance was backed almost entirely by Shiites, giving it a narrow sectarian base.
Nonetheless, after months of post-election limbo and horse-trading, Mr Al Maliki outmanoeuvred his rivals, headed by the former prime minister Ayad Allawi, to become prime minister for a second term, striking a deal under which Iraqiyya agreed to join his national unity administration.
That deal has since been the source of much controversy, with Iraqiyya saying Mr Al Maliki brushed aside its provisions for genuine power-sharing in favour of keeping an iron grip on power.
Under the terms of the Erbil agreement a national strategy council, headed by Iraqiyya, was to have been set up, something that has still not happened more than a year later. Mr Al Maliki has also retained direct control over the interior ministry while Iraqiyya nominees for the ministry of defence have been rejected.
With those issues unresolved, Sunni majority provinces have grown increasingly unhappy with Mr Al Maliki's leadership, saying his government is sectarian, corrupt, too aligned with Iran and, without the restraining presence of US troops, intent on consolidating Shiite rule. In response there has been a growing movement in Sunni areas to form federal zones - similar to Iraq's autonomous northern Kurdish region - to escape Baghdad's central control, breakaways Mr Al Maliki is resisting. Such a movement in Diyala province sparked Sunni-Shiite confrontations last week, to the alarm of many ordinary Iraqis who fear their country may slip back into sectarian war now that US forces have departed.