Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's efforts to retain power despite his failure in last month's elections threaten to undercut the democratic process that has been hailed as a key achievement of the U.S. invasion and occupation.
He is also potentially gambling away the country's security with steps that, if successful, are certain to leave Iraq's minority Sunnis feeling cheated after they overwhelmingly backed his secular challenger, Ayad Allawi. The resulting anger could fuel new sectarian bloodshed and reinvigorate an insurgency against the country's Shiite-dominated leadership.
Illustrating the risk, suicide attackers detonated two car bombs Wednesday evening in a Shiite enclave of Baghdad, killing seven people.
Allawi, a former prime minister, is fighting back, demanding an internationally supervised caretaker government and warning he might withdraw from the political process altogether, potentially prompting the barely contained Sunni-Shiite tensions to explode just as U.S. troops prepare to go home.
Al-Maliki came out of the March 7 parliamentary election with a two-seat deficit to Allawi, a decision that was met with dancing in the streets by Allawi's backers, many of whom are Sunni Arabs who resent al-Maliki's perceived sectarian policies.
Trying to change results
Al-Maliki has vigorously fought the outcome, using the powers of his office and a judiciary of questionable independence to try to change the results.
He successfully pushed for a recount of the Baghdad votes — which has not yet been carried out — and benefited from a vetting panel targeting former members of Saddam Hussein's ruling party that has set its sights on several of Allawi's candidates. Either tactic could tilt the election outcome in al-Maliki's favor.
"Certainly what is going on is a theft of the Iraqi will and democracy, jeopardizing the safety of the country," Allawi told Iraq's al-Sharqiya channel in an interview early Wednesday.
Allawi called on international organizations like the U.N., the Arab League, the EU and the Organization of Islamic Conference to help establish an impartial interim government, and a spokesman said his Iraqiya coalition would consider quitting the political process altogether or demand a repeat election if its demands are not met.
He has also been touring neighboring countries in an attempt to drum up support for his candidacy and is set to hold talks with the Cairo-based Arab League Wednesday.
With no end in sight to al-Maliki's efforts, U.S. officials appear worried and impatient.
U.S. officials grow impatient
Speaking to reporters this week, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill did not mention al-Maliki specifically, but his frustration was palpable.
"It seems it is time to get this show on the road here," he said.
It was always going to take a long time to form a government in Iraq, a fractious country in which every political decision deteriorates into a showdown, but what is surprising to many is the degree to which al-Maliki has battled results even before the negotiating for the new government has started.
"Almost every day, we see new procedures and possible decisions that could change the results and have a grave impact on the political process," said Baghdad-based political analyst Kadhum al-Muqdadi.
Even if the recount is in al-Maliki's favor and a number of Allawi's candidates are booted from the race, it still won't give the prime minister's coalition the majority needed to form a government outright. But that may not be his aim.
Baghdad-based political observer Hadi Jalo said al-Maliki is trying to strengthen his negotiating position before serious talks to form a coalition government.
Al-Maliki has said his legal appeals are simply designed to make the process fair and that he will abide by all court decisions.
In some ways, al-Maliki is simply a sore loser, some Iraqi politicians say privately.
But the cost of his political machinations could be extremely high. Sunnis were outraged after the news last week of a secret prison run by Iraqi forces that mostly held Sunnis.
In a report released Wednesday, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said Iraqi men held for months at the prison were systematically tortured, including some beaten so badly they lost teeth and urinated blood for days. Others were raped, given electric shocks to their genitals and deprived of air, the report said.
The Iraqi government quickly shut down the prison after the torture was revealed by the Los Angeles Times and either released or transferred its 431 detainees. The government has denied al-Maliki had any knowledge of the facility and vowed to investigate the abuses.
But many Sunnis see the prison as proof the Shiite-dominated government is persecuting them and has changed little since the days when Shiite death squads roamed the city.
Adding to frustrations, the lack of information about the court handing down rulings favoring al-Maliki has raised questions about its independence.
Its three anonymous judges approved al-Maliki's call for a Baghdad recount and upheld a decision to bar 52 candidates from the election — including one from Allawi's list who won a seat. But the decisions were not publicly released and word leaked out piecemeal.
The man who oversaw the elections and is tasked with carrying out the recount, Faraj al-Haidari, railed against the court this week in an interview with The Associated Press, calling their decisions entirely political.
Santana is the AP's Baghdad bureau chief. Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin and Paul Schemm contributed to this report.