Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi, a senior Shiite politician often mentioned as a potential prime minister, tendered his resignation last week in a move that reflects deepening frustration inside the Iraqi government with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Other senior Iraqi officials have considered resigning in recent weeks over the failures of their government to make progress after more than a year in power, according to Iraqi and U.S. officials.
Abdul Mahdi said he was provoked by the second bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra on June 13, in which he said corrupt police abetted Sunni insurgents. "The two minarets were as important to us as September 11, and we should be accountable to the people," Abdul Mahdi said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "We should be doing more to move in a positive direction -- on corruption, accountability and defending the important sites."
Abdul Mahdi's attempted resignation, which has been held at bay by promises of action, is also a sign of growing disarray among the Shiites who lead the government.
As the U.S. military attempts to show the success this summer of a security plan to pacify the capital and other parts of the country, Iraq's prime minister has also entered what many officials say is a crucial test period for his government. A growing number of Iraqi leaders, including several fellow Shiites, are expressing discontent with Maliki's ability to stanch the bloodshed, contain civil war, make progress on economic fronts and share power with the minority Sunnis.
"It's all about what is perceived to be Maliki's centralizing control with the inner circles of the Dawa party and also not taking on the country's tough challenges," said a senior Iraqi politician, referring to the prime minister's party. The politician said he had read Abdul Mahdi's resignation letter but would not speak for attribution. "There is growing frustration about the leadership of this country."
The prime minister's advisers insist that Maliki remains committed to national unity, that his position is secure and that calls for his removal threaten to undermine the fledgling democratic experiment in Iraq. The responsibility for any failures of this government, aides say, would rest equally among the rival factions and not just on the prime minister.
"We have noticed, since the start of the Baghdad security operation, people have opened fire on the Maliki government," said Yaseen Majeed, a Maliki spokesman. "Whoever wants to change the government should go to parliament, and follow the constitutional, democratic methods, by forming a new bloc, if they are true believers in democracy. Otherwise, we see this propaganda campaign as an attempt to discredit the Maliki government, and we reject that."
Maliki's political benefactor, radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, has again withdrawn his followers in parliament in the wake of the Samarra bombing. The leader of Sadr's legislative bloc, Nasar al-Rubaie, said that "the Maliki government will surely collapse if the situation continues as it is right now."
Benchmarks for progress
Humam Hamoudi, a senior leader of another powerful Shiite faction, the Supreme Islamic Council in Iraq, said that "these two months will give a strong indication on the issue of his continuation, or whether we go into the crisis of looking for another prime minister."
"Everybody wants him to succeed," Hamoudi added. "Rather, I should say, many, not everybody."
Maliki's government has failed so far to push through major laws demanded by the U.S. government as a means of promoting national reconciliation. These so-called benchmarks include laws governing oil resources and the reintegration of former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party into the government, and constitutional amendments to afford more influence to Sunnis.
While the official U.S. position remains supportive of Maliki, some American military commanders question the Iraqi government's commitment to evenhanded enforcement in security operations and worry that decisions to capture or release certain suspects are made with sectarian motives in mind.
The turmoil within Shiite political circles is exacerbated by the deteriorating health of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Islamic Council. He has sought treatment in Houston, and now Tehran, for lung cancer, and several U.S. and Iraqi officials said his condition is grave. While the Islamic Council has several prominent members, including Abdul Mahdi and Hamoudi, many U.S. and Iraqi officials expect that Hakim's son, Ammar al-Hakim, will succeed his father.
"A highly complicated political landscape is about to get more complicated," said a U.S. official who tracks Shiite politics. The Islamic Council "is on top now, but other groups are contending for greater political power," he added.
Earlier this year, the Fadhila Party staged the first direct challenge to Shiite unity when it withdrew its 15 members from the United Iraqi Alliance, the ruling Shiite coalition in the 275-seat parliament. Some observers see the Shiite religious leadership in Najaf as one of the last bonds holding together an increasingly fractious political grouping.
Sadr and Hakim are powerful rivals who command large militias, and Sadr might be attempting to expand his disparate following at a time of transition for the Islamic Council. Sadr is known as a fierce nationalist, while Hakim has pushed to create a semiautonomous region of largely Shiite provinces in southern Iraq. Sadrists tend to see the Islamic Council as an Iranian proxy, although U.S. and Iraqi officials say they believe Iran supports Sadr's militia as well.
Members of Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, have clashed with security forces linked to the Islamic Council in recent days in the southern city of Nasiriyah. The city's police force consists largely of members of the Badr Organization, an arm of the Islamic Council. Ahmed al-Shaibani, a spokesman for Sadr in Najaf, said 11 Mahdi Army fighters and 40 police officers and soldiers had been killed in the clashes.
Such violence is not without precedent. Last October, dozens were killed in similar fighting between the Mahdi Army and policemen affiliated with the Badr Organization in the southern city of Amarah.
"This is the genesis or manifestation of the open rift in the Shiite camp," said the senior Iraqi politician who had read Abdul Mahdi's letter.
Maliki's tenuous position also derives from the relative weakness of his Dawa party, which does not command the devoted following among average citizens that Sadr and Hakim's organizations do. As violence has increased and basic services have declined over the years, the central government -- and with it Maliki's leadership -- has grown more irrelevant to such outlying regions as the Kurdish north and the Shiite south, and among the Sunni tribes in Anbar province.
‘No popular traction’
"Dawa has no popular traction or appeal or footprint," said a senior Iraqi official who also spoke on condition of anonymity. "We really need to have new elections to know who stands where."
One of Abdul Mahdi's demands of Maliki is that he act on long-standing commitments to include the president and two vice presidents in more of the decision-making, according to the politician who read the vice president's letter. The leadership of the United Iraqi Alliance has also met with Maliki's circle and has been critical of its tight hold on decision-making, the politician added.
Khudair al-Khuzai, the education minister and a fellow member of the Dawa party, called Maliki's performance "wonderful" under the circumstances.
"If any government faced even one of the pressures he is facing, it wouldn't be able to continue," he said. "The Shiites won't find anyone better than Maliki, and the next elections will prove that."
Wright reported from Washington. Correspondent John Ward Anderson in Baghdad contributed to this report.