The flurry to close the first chapter of Iraq's seven-month political drama is suddenly intense with angry Sunnis pledging to dig in for a fight while Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki tries to win over the last few allies he needs to stay in power.
But after the struggle for prime minister is finally settled, then comes the next big fight that could also drag on for months — the competition for key government posts.
A taste of both the old and upcoming showdowns was offered Monday inside the parliament building that's been idled by the political crisis since March elections.
Sunni leaders lashed out at al-Maliki, who appears on the verge of dodging election defeat and hanging onto power. But the pledges of Sunni unity and defiance also pointed to the drawn-out fight over Cabinet seats that could extend the impasse into its fourth season.
"It's a very complicated political scene right now," said Hadi Jalo, a political analyst at Baghdad University. "There are pressures and rivalries that could keep this going for a long time."
For the moment, it's all about al-Maliki's drive to get enough backers for a parliament majority and the right for his Shiite-led coalition to begin putting together a government. He's close after gaining support from hard-line Shiite factions last week. An expected nod from Kurdish parties would put him comfortably over the top.
And this is just Act I.
Brawl for ministries
The real brawling begins when it's time to dole out the ministries, including such gems as the Interior Ministry that directs security affairs and the Oil Ministry that oversees lucrative exploration deals and oil reserves which — according to new figures announced Monday — are now the second largest in OPEC after Saudi Arabia.
If Al-Maliki pulls it off, he'll need to reward his new partners such as anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Analysts say the Sunnis will most likely put aside their anger and also join the scrabble for key posts despite pledges to boycott an al-Maliki government.
Among their presumed wish list is the presidency — now held by a Kurd — and parliament speaker. Both roles are seen as ways to push back against feared Iranian influence via Shiite groups such as al-Sadr's movement.
In recent days, Al-Maliki has been dispatching envoys to Sunni leaders in hopes of trying to find some path toward a unity government. So far, the Sunnis seem in no mood for any concessions that could ease the process along.
They've already waited a long time. The Sunni-backed Iraqiya alliance narrowly won the March parliamentary elections, but could not pull in enough partners to gain a majority in the 325-seat chamber. This left them as glum bystanders while al-Maliki began racking up fresh allies late last month.
They punched back a bit Monday.
Hayder al-Mulla, the Iraqiya spokesman, demanded that al-Maliki and his allies "give up the post" of prime minister to acknowledge the victory of Ayad Allawi, Iraqiya's leader who served as prime minister after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
'For all Iraqis'
"The prime minister's post is for all Iraqis and not for one sect or one party," he said in a direct reference to the dominance of Shiites over political affairs and security forces since the fall of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime.
His comments sought to counter reports of defections to al-Maliki's side. They also showed the fragile nature of the rapprochement between majority Shiites and Sunnis just three years since the country stepped back from the brink of sectarian civil war.
"Our reservations over al-Maliki come out of the bitter experiences of the past four years," al-Mulla told reporters at a press conference in the idled parliament building. The site has been quiet since March except for one informal, 20-minute "session" used by some lawmakers to protest the postelection gridlock.
On Sunday, a key Sunni political leader in the northern city of Mosul hit even harder.
Atheel al-Nujaifi, governor of the northern Ninevah province, told The Associated Press that a return of al-Maliki as government leader would destroy the country's "last chance for democracy" and leave Sunnis cold about taking part in future elections.
And despite holding a measureable advantage over all rivals, al-Maliki has not locked down complete support among Shiites.
A highly influential group, the Iranian-backed Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, has so far withheld its backing for al-Maliki in a possible last-ditch efforts to find an alternative prime minister nominee, perhaps their ally Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi.
It is political posturing like this that unnerves U.S. officials.
No U.S. endorsements
Washington has not endorsed anyone for the prime minister post, but American officials appeal nonstop for the new government to represent all of Iraq's groups.
The fear is that rifts between the majority Shiites and Sunnis could scare off needed foreign investment and severely complicate internal security cooperation as U.S. military force leave.
U.S. military commanders link a recent wave of targeted attacks on security personnel and government workers to Sunni insurgents trying to discredit authorities and tap into Iraqis' growing frustration over the political limbo. At least two people were killed Monday in apparent targeted bombings, including a freelance journalist for the U.S.-funded Al-Hurra TV.
The political stalemate also has left needed reconstruction projects on the drawing boards — such as upgrades to electricity grids and plans to sell off state companies — while potential new foreign investors may be waiting in the wings.
"The ones that are already here, they're moving full speed ahead," said Hussein al-Uzri, chairman of the state-owned Trade Bank of Iraq, at an investment conference last week in Bahrain. "The ones that are considering ... They're probably (going to) wait a few months until the government is formed."
Washington is pushing ahead nonetheless. The first official U.S. trade delegation to Iraq in more than 30 years is scheduled to begin meetings Tuesday led by Francisco Sanchez, the U.S. undersecretary of commerce for international trade.