shiitestingposter_crop2.jpgAlissa Rubin writes in Friday’s New York Times:

With provincial elections scheduled for the end of January, Iraq appears to be plagued by political troubles that seem closer to Shakespearean drama than to nascent democracy.

. . . Beneath the swirl of accusations and rumors is a power play in which different factions within the government — and some outside it — are struggling to gain ground as American influence in the country wanes and elections approach that could begin to reshape the political landscape here.

. . . On the political front that seems especially true. The one source of political unity recently has been frustration with Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who has been making arrests and using tribes in the provinces to set up personal power bases. His rivals, conscious of Iraq’s long history of dictatorship, are crying foul.

. . . About two weeks ago the leaders of the major political factions in the government met in northern Iraq to discuss Mr. Maliki and whether they could muster the votes to get rid of him, according to high-ranking Iraqi politicians and Western diplomats. “We have been counting the votes, and we have enough votes to withdraw confidence and nominate a new prime minister,” said a senior member of the United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of Shiite parties and independents that forms the largest bloc in Parliament.

It’s significant that a member of the UIA — the ruling coalition to which Maliki’s own party belongs — is making noises about deposing him, rather than one of the disgruntled factions already shut out of power. However, as Rubin’s article notes, it’s far from a done deal:

What they do not have, however, is agreement on who would get the top jobs, which the parties want to nail down before making any moves.

. . . unless there is consensus about a successor, the government could drift for months as it did after the elections in 2005, when there were several months of discussions about who would become prime minister, and in 2006, when the previous prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, was removed.

In short, agreeing to knock off the guy on top is easy; deciding who gets to be on top instead is a lot more complicated. For example, the UIA faction probably leading the let’s-oust-Maliki talks is the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. If my understanding of Iraqi legislative rules is correct (and it may not be), they would be first in line to create a new government if the current one falls.

But many groups, like Muqtada as-Sadr’s supporters, don’t want ISCI to have even more power — indeed, Maliki gained his post in 2006 because the Sadrists were determined to keep an al-Hakim ally from becoming prime minister.

It’s a common enough situation in heist movies: Having gotten away with stealing the money (or, in this case, wresting a country away from a would-be occupier), the protagonists come into conflict trying to divide the spoils. The fact that the "getaway" is far from complete makes the situation even dicier, and perhaps more dangerous.