Hopes that Iraq's parliament could convene this week fell apart Monday as the country stumbled into month five with no new government and the prime minister hitting a brick wall with his nominal Shiite allies, some of whom deeply oppose him staying in his post.
The heads of the main political blocs met Monday in the latest attempt to find common ground, but with no resolution on filling top posts in sight, they decided to delay the next session for two weeks, acting parliament speaker Fouad Massoum said.
That means more backroom negotiations as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki tries to cobble together a coalition that will back him for a new term, while his rivals press for him to step down, all against a backdrop of the U.S. military preparing to withdraw all combat troops by September and all forces by the end of next year.
Shiite parties appeared to have made a breakthrough in early May when al-Maliki's State of Law and the Iraqi National Alliance, a Shiite bloc backed by Iran, announced a coalition that seemed to give them a sure hand to form the government. But they have since been deadlocked over al-Maliki, as some INA members staunchly reject a new term.
"They seem to be totally stalemated, and they're totally stalemated because nobody wants Maliki to be prime Minster," said Marina Ottoway, from the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for Peace.
The deadlock is so tough, the prime minister is now flirting with his archrival, Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who leads the mainly Sunni coalition, Iraqiya. But that political combination has its own challenges.
To be sure, no one thought seating a new government would be easy.
The election results set up a contentious fight: Iraqiya narrowly edged out the State of Law coalition, 91 seats to 89, in a March 7 election shocker that was celebrated by Iraq's Sunni community. But it was far short of the necessary 163-seat majority.
The parliament held its inaugural session on June 14, but it was largely symbolic and ended after less than 20 minutes.
Under Iraq's constitution, the legislature should have chosen a parliament speaker and a president, but these appointments had to be put off because they are part of the negotiations between major political blocs over the rest of the new leadership — including a prime minister and top Cabinet officials.
Members of the Iraqi National Alliance, which includes followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, have vehemently opposed al-Maliki continuing as prime minister. Al-Maliki jailed thousands of al-Sadr's supporters during U.S.-Iraqi offensives in their strongholds of Basra and Baghdad's Sadr City.
The Shiite alliance was more about keeping Allawi from power rather than any desire to work together, said Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish politician.
"Frankly speaking, things are not clear, and nobody knows if they (the blocs) can reach an agreement or not," Othman said Monday.
Officials from both parties in the alliance said other objections to al-Maliki included poor relations with the Arab world and a tendency to act without consulting others outside his inner circle, pushing members of his Dawa Party into government posts and appointing members of the armed forces loyal to him.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the ongoing negotiations.
"There are a lot of grudges against him," said Ottoway.
But these complaints against al-Maliki also indicate a bit of sour grapes by political leaders who likely also want the opportunity to put their own people in power. And the prime minister has been lauded for the Basra and Sadr City offensives as an indication he's willing to go after Shiite militias just as much as Sunni militias.
Prominent Dawa party member, Abdul-Hadi al-Hassani, acknowledged opposition to al-Maliki's nomination but said the prime minister was working "according to the constitution and the law."
The political drama has led to speculation al-Maliki is turning instead to Allawi to form a coalition. The two met June 29 — their second meeting since the election — in what was viewed as a hint by al-Maliki to his Shiite allies.
"It is possible that an Iraqiya-State of Law alliance could emerge if talks continue as positively as they are now," Iraqiya spokesman Abdul Rahman al-Bayder said.
But any agreement between Iraqiya and State of Law would require that either Allawi or al-Maliki — or both — give up their bid to be prime minister. Neither seems eager to do that, although political analyst Kazim al-Muqdadi, from Baghdad University, said al-Maliki may be willing to give Iraqiya key ministries as long as he gets the top job.