BAGHDAD -- Secular former prime minister and U.S. favorite Ayad Allawi is leading a new push to replace the Shiite-led administration of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with a broad-based government that would focus on restoring order.
Amid deepening concerns among Sunnis and secularists about al-Maliki's performance, Allawi has emerged at the center of an initiative to create a "national salvation front," which his supporters say would be able to secure the backing of Iraqi insurgents, reunite the country and end the sectarian conflict that has prevailed for more than a year.
Though Allawi's aides deny that he wants to replace al-Maliki as prime minister, Allawi is preparing to embark on a tour of the region to win the support of Arab governments for his proposals, just as representatives of Iraq's neighbors are gathering with the U.S. in Baghdad for a regional conference intended to shore up support for the al-Maliki government.
The idea of a new coalition to overturn the current political process is not new, and the front has yet to be fully formed.
Sending a message
But the effort has been given new momentum by the reappearance on the Iraqi political scene of Allawi, a high-profile U.S. ally who is both a Shiite and a centrist; the defection this week of the Fadhila Party, a small faction from al-Maliki's ruling Shiite coalition; and a trip by Allawi in the company of U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to visit the Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani last weekend.
U.S. Embassy officials refused to say why Khalilzad accompanied Allawi on the trip to Kurdistan or what was discussed during the talks.
But the Kurdistan visit was interpreted by many in Baghdad as a public display of support for Allawi by the U.S. It was also seen as a warning to al-Maliki that he cannot count on continued U.S. support if his Shiite-led government does not deliver on a range of promises intended to end the sectarian conflict and bring about real reconciliation with Sunnis.
"You see Allawi meeting with Barzani and the U.S. ambassador is with Allawi, so people analyze this as meaning that the U.S. supports Allawi," said Kurdish legislator Mahmoud Othman, who discussed the meeting with Barzani and does not believe the U.S. has made a decision to support the new front.
"Maybe the U.S. is using this to put pressure on Maliki to deliver more, to remind him that there are alternatives," Othman said.
Sunnis and secularists staunchly opposed to the Islamist Shiite parties now running the government have unsuccessfully tried to find ways to block Shiite rule since the December 2005 election, which gave Shiites a plurality, though not an outright majority, in the Iraqi parliament.
For any new coalition to have a chance of outvoting the al-Maliki government in parliament, it would have to secure the backing of the Kurds, the second-largest parliamentary bloc. The Kurds teamed up with the Shiite coalition to form a majority in the current government.
The Kurds are not prepared to abandon their Shiite partners for now, said Othman, which makes it difficult to see how Allawi can succeed in his efforts.
The U.S. has also given no indication that it is considering abandoning al-Maliki. Addressing reporters at his first news conference on Thursday, Gen. David Petraeus, the new commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, expressed full confidence in al-Maliki, saying that he and his team are "striving to be leaders for all Iraqis and responsive to the desires of all Iraqis."
The political maneuvering has nonetheless triggered rumors across Baghdad that a coup plot is being hatched, stirring fury among al-Maliki's supporters.
"If there is any conspiracy or plot against Maliki's government, millions of people will take to the streets," Shiite legislator Hassan Snaid, one of al-Maliki's closest advisers, told Al-Hurra TV, in a reminder that the Shiite government enjoys the support of the vast majority of ordinary Shiites.
Supporters of the new front deny that they are conspiring to remove al-Maliki. They say they will seek to replace him only if he fails to fulfill a set of demands that includes the formation of a new government, an overhaul of the de-Baathification law, which prevents many former Baathists from returning to public life, and a review of the constitution.
These are longstanding Sunni demands, backed by the U.S., that al-Maliki has repeatedly said he will address. They also include a revamp of his Cabinet, which he has promised in the coming week.
"Our problem is not with Mr. Maliki as a person. Our problem is with the system, which must be modified," said Izzat Shahbandar, a parliamentarian from Allawi's bloc who is closely involved in the new effort.
"The first step is for Mr. Maliki to make changes, and if he doesn't respond we are ready to form a parliamentary bloc that is big enough to remove the prime minister."
The latest challenge to al-Maliki has the support of most members of the main parliamentary Sunni and secular blocs, and efforts are also under way to lure support away from the Shiite coalition, which controls 128 seats. Past efforts to split the United Iraqi Alliance have failed, though the small Fadhila Party, with 15 seats, announced it was leaving the coalition earlier this week.
But with the Kurds in control of 53 seats, that still leaves the Allawi initiative far short of the 138 seats needed to bring about a parliamentary coup.
"I'm not optimistic that it will succeed," said Othman, the Kurdish legislator. "I'd prefer a secular government, but the Shiites are sticking together and they're a strong coalition."
By Liz Sly