Abandoned by his fellow Shiites, Iraq's prime minister must turn to new allies and work twice as hard to form a broad-based alliance if he is to keep his job after January's parliamentary elections.
Just over a week ago, all Nouri al-Maliki had to do was to hold steady until voting day. With violence down to record lows, his political rivals in disarray and his image as a nonsectarian leader taking root, he was virtually assured of another four years at the helm.
But then the Aug. 19 suicide truck bombings devastated the foreign and finance ministries, killing about 100 people and dealing a major blow to confidence in the country's security forces. Iraq's media called it "Bloody Wednesday."
The bombings, which followed several other high-profile attacks after the June 30 withdrawal of U.S. forces from urban areas, eroded the prime minister's biggest asset — improved security.
Al-Maliki's one-time Shiite allies dumped him on Monday from a new coalition they formed to contest the Jan. 16 vote, a move which will likely put pressure on the prime minister to turn to Sunnis for support.
Whether al-Maliki can recover in time and secure his job after the January vote is a question that has ramifications that go beyond Iraqi politics.
The Iran factor
The United States sees in al-Maliki a reliable if somewhat too nationalist and independent-minded ally who has friendly ties with the Iranians but keeps them at a safe distance. Those poised to possibly take his place have stronger links to Tehran and could take a less friendly stance toward the Americans, who still maintain some 130,000 troops in the country.
The U.S. military plans to withdraw all its forces by the end of 2011, leaving behind a vacuum many fear the Iranians would be eager to fill.
Leaders of the new Iraqi National Alliance said al-Maliki stayed out because of differences over leadership and other issues but that the door was open for him to join later.
That's highly unlikely. Such a decision would almost certainly be seen as a sign of weakness and could undermine al-Maliki enough that he would lose his job anyway.
"No one in the Shiite parties of the new alliance is ready to make concessions to him," said Iraqi political analyst Nabil Salim, alluding to al-Maliki's widely reported demand that he would join on condition that he was guaranteed the prime minister's job after the elections.
The new bloc is led by the largest Shiite party, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, and a bloc loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Both have close ties to Tehran. The bloc also includes small Sunni and secular groups.
It replaces a Shiite alliance that won the last election in December 2005, dominating the 275-seat legislature and securing al-Maliki the prime minister's job.
Creating an alliance
Al-Maliki has yet to comment publicly on the new bloc, but a close aide, Hassan al-Sineid, said the prime minister remained committed to the creation of a broad-based, national alliance.
Cobbling together an alliance to lead into the elections will not be difficult, but the real test is whether the bloc would be strong enough to lure voters in the mainly Shiite south of Iraq and to get on board credible Sunni leaders with real popular base.
The tough part, though, is whether al-Maliki can do enough to reassure Iraqis that he is the leader they should vote for if they want to see their No. 1 wish — security — come true.
That said, more bloodshed could kill al-Maliki's chances altogether of returning as prime minister.
"His broader rhetorical approach looking toward Iraqi nationalism is only viable as a political stance so long as security continues along an improved and relatively stable course," said Michael W. Hanna, an Iraq expert from the Century Foundation in New York. "Al-Maliki's electoral prospects are now very clearly tied to the security situation."
Wary of Tehran
The prime minister can draw some comfort from the poor showing of his Shiite rivals in the Jan. 31 provincial elections, when his supporters dominated the polls in the oil-rich south as well as in Baghdad.
The south has largely been spared the ravages of the violence that has wracked much of the rest of the country since 2003, and voters there are more concerned with services, jobs and the economy than with security.
They are also wary of Iran's influence in their region, and would be reluctant to vote for groups known to be too close to Tehran, like the Supreme Council, followers of al-Sadr and former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.
But Juan Cole, a prominent U.S. Iraq expert, believes the Shiite vote would be split between al-Maliki's bloc and the new alliance and holds out the possibility of the two camps joining forces afterward to maintain Shiite political domination.
"I'm not sure it matters so much what coalitions the Shiite parties make," he said. "The only way it would matter would be if the Supreme Council and the Sadrists won big" and went on to provide the next prime minister, an eventuality that would not please Washington.
Hamza Hendawi is the AP's Middle East Correspondent. He has covered Iraq since 2003.