Iraq's shaky governing coalition received a setback Thursday when the leader of a political bloc backed by Iraq's minority Sunnis rejected a position specially created for him in the new government.
The decision by Ayad Allawi brings to light the deep fissures within the government at a time when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki faces widespread protests across the country. It also highlights a frequent complaint about al-Maliki: his unwillingness to share power.
Allawi had long wavered on whether he would take the position as head of the National Council for Strategic Policies. Although Allawi's Iraqiya party narrowly won the most seats in last year's parliamentary election, Allawi was outmaneuvered by al-Maliki, who kept the premier's post after drawn-out negotiations.
As a compromise to keep Allawi and his Sunni supporters in the political process, the United States pushed for Allawi to head a council that would _ in theory _ serve as a check on al-Maliki's powers. But late Wednesday, Allawi told a meeting of his political allies he would not take the job because no headway had been made on negotiations over its powers.
Allawi wanted it to be a powerful body with funding and decision-making capability, while al-Maliki supporters wanted it to be a purely advisory council.
"Ayad Allawi was clear in his speech. He said that there was no partnership with the government," said Maysoun al-Damlouji, a spokeswoman for Iraqiya, Allawi's political bloc.
On Thursday, Allawi traveled to the Shiite holy city of Najaf where he met with anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr _ currently an al-Maliki ally. But al-Sadr and al-Maliki have long been bitter enemies and in recent days al-Sadr has voiced frustration with al-Maliki's running of the government at a time when protests continue almost daily.
Al-Damlouji said the Allawi and al-Sadr discussed their support for young people who have been calling for reforms during the demonstrations. And they agreed for their two blocs to work together.
It was not immediately clear how serious the overtures are between Allawi and the Sadrists, or whether the discussions were instead a negotiating gambit from Allawi.
The two political factions negotiated intensely over the summer before al-Sadr backed al-Maliki for prime minister. Many political analysts say it's unlikely that the Shiite al-Sadr, who enjoys deep Iranian support, would ever align with a Sunni-backed political bloc. Al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia also has been accused of killing thousands of Sunnis during the insurgency, making him unpalatable to many in Iraqiya.
Baghdad-based political analyst, Hadi Jalo, said it is unlikely Allawi's decision to drop the council would lead to the fall of the government, pointing out that none of the ministers from his Iraqiya bloc joined him in rejecting their positions.
He said the decision was rather a reflection of the wider turmoil going on across the Middle East where the president of traditional powerhouse Egypt was overthrown and Saudi Arabia is struggling to prevent protests breaking out there.
"He has lost his strongest allies such as Egypt," Jalo said. "On the other hand the Shiite alliance people feel more confident now because their supporter Iran is getting stronger. Shiite and Kurdish officials feel that they no longer need Allawi to make the political process continue."
An adviser to al-Maliki appeared unconcerned about the prospect of Allawi quitting the council, saying it was designed only to satisfy Allawi.
Allawi's commitment to the council was always shaky, said Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq analyst with the International Crisis Group. His preference was always to be prime minister.
But more worrisome, said Hiltermann, is al-Maliki's reluctance to give the council _ or many other government bodies _ significant power. Already, a number of security and intelligence agencies report directly to the prime minister's office as opposed to the Defense Ministry or Interior Ministry. Earlier this year, al-Maliki also pulled key government agencies such as the election commission and the central bank under his authority.
"These are really critical checks and balances on the prime minister's powers," Hiltermann said.
Meanwhile, in the northern Kurdish region, President Massoud Barzani asked the Kurdish parliament to study the possibility of early general elections. Barzani gave no date for the new elections.
The Kurds control three provinces in northern Iraq, and have their own president and parliament.
Thousands in one of the Kurdish provinces, Sulaimaniyah, have been rallying almost daily to demand political reforms; eight people have died. Many of the protesters are demanding that the two ruling parties which have dominated the Kurdish political and economic scene for decades loosen their grip on power.
But Mohammed Tawfeeq, a spokesman for an upstart political party called Gorran that has been calling for reforms, said the entire current government should resign immediately. Only after a caretaker government is formed can new elections be planned.
"The region is passing through a deep crisis. The current government cannot solve the problems," he said.
Associated Press writers Bushra Juhi and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad, and Sameer N. Yacoub in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.