BAGHDAD // It was less than three months ago that, accompanied by much international fanfare, Iraqi politicians sealed a power-sharing deal that ended a lengthy deadlock and handed Nouri al Maliki a second term as prime minister.
That deal is now in tatters and any remaining hopes of a national unity administration are fading fast.
Ayad Allawi, head of the Iraqiyya bloc, announced last Thursday that he would not take the job of head of a national strategic policy council, the post allocated to him under the terms of the agreement with Mr al Maliki in exchange for relinquishing his claim on the premiership.
Although no Iraqiyya minister has yet resigned, party members are openly talking of quitting the coalition government.
Crucially, there have been similar rumblings of discontent from inside the Sadrist movement, which is part of Mr al Maliki's National Alliance group. With 39 MPs, its support for Mr al Maliki was critical in giving him the parliamentary majority required for a second term as prime minister.
Amir al Kinani, a Sadrist MP, said: "In the coming days I think the Sadrists and some other members of the National Alliance will probably meet with Iraqiyya and that could result in them forming a united opposition bloc in parliament."
He warned that any attempt to subvert the government-forming deal would create "political problems, at a time when the country is boiling". Thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest against government failures, in defiance of the security services.
There have also been a number of deadly insurgent attacks, reminders that the situation is anything but settled.
"Mr al Maliki should be dealing with important issues that the Iraqi people are talking about, and he should be honouring the deal that created a national coalition government," Mr al Kinani said. "At this time we should all be working together for the good of the country."
A senior Iraqiyya policy adviser, Hani Ashour, said the bloc was considering pulling out of the coalition government and going into opposition.
"With Mr Allawi pulling out of the strategic council, it is perhaps time for Iraqiyya to take up an opposition role in parliament," he said. "The agreement we had with Mr al Maliki was clear and his actions since it was made have not been in keeping with that agreement."
The Iraqiyya alliance narrowly won the March election, putting Mr Allawi ahead of Mr al Maliki in the running to be prime minister. But neither candidate secured enough parliamentary seats to rule alone, and in the subsequent eight months of horse-trading, it was Mr al Maliki who rose to the top.
To do so he struck agreements with the Sadrists and Iraqiyya, which were widely touted as a power-sharing arrangement, one that would curb his decision making prerogative and give his coalition partners a greater say in how the country was to be run.
The national strategic policy council, an idea heavily pushed by the US vice-president, Joe Biden, was a key part of the deal.
To be chaired by Mr Allawi, it was seen as a way of ensuring that Sunni voters, most of whom backed Iraqiyya, would not once again feel alienated under a sectarian Shiite administration led by Mr al Maliki, with their candidates totally excluded from power.
However, the strategic council did not exist when Iraqiyya and Mr al Maliki came to terms and in the process of creating it, during numerous parliamentary committee meetings over the past weeks, the prospect of any real power-sharing appears to have finally collapsed.
Mr al Maliki and his allies have ensured that legislation will limit the council to an advisory role, rather than allowing it decision-making authority.
Mohammad Jabouri, an Iraqiyya MP, said: "The prime minister and his people are sneaking around the arrangements we made. They are interested only in achieving their personal goals, rather than running the country in the national interest.
"We need to sit and talk to Mr al Maliki to understand why he is walking around the power-sharing agreement, and if he insists on doing it, all trust between the blocs will disappear and there will be real problems in parliament."
Close allies of the prime minister insist they are honouring the deal and that the strategic council was never going to operate as a second executive branch of government, in competition with Mr al Maliki's office.
"No one is trying to skirt around the agreements that were made and we do not want to cancel the power-sharing deal," said Abbas al Beyati, a National Alliance MP. "We always wanted the council to provide the government with advice and performance appraisals and to help with strategy but it cannot be a second government."
If the Sadrists and Iraqiyya were to pull out of the governing coalition, it would not automatically collapse Mr al Maliki's administration, although he would have a more difficult task in gathering a majority to get legislation approved by parliament. That could hinder his ability to get things done, and throw the political system once again into limbo.
But the prime minister can always count on his opponents' weakness. On Monday eight Iraqiyya members said they were withdrawing from the bloc and renouncing Mr Allawi's leadership, cutting the number of parliamentary seats he controls from 91 to 83.
In effect, that has reversed the result of the March election, leaving Mr Allawi in command of 83 seats, fewer than Mr al Maliki, who won 89. More Iraqiyya members, including government ministers, could defect if Mr Allawi tries to pull the bloc into opposition.
In addition, Mr al Maliki has secured unprecedented powers as head of the three security ministries and also now controls previously independent organisations, including the election commission and central bank.