Major partners in Iraq's governing coalition are in behind-the-scenes talks to oust Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki amid discontent over his failure to quell raging violence, according to lawmakers involved.
The talks are aimed at forming a new parliamentary bloc that would seek to replace the current government and that would likely exclude supporters of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is a vehement opponent of the U.S. military presence.
The new alliance would be led by senior Shiite politician Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, who met with President Bush last week. Al-Hakim, however, was not expected to be the next prime minister because he prefers the role of powerbroker, staying above the grinding day-to-day running of the country.
A key figure in the proposed alliance, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Arab, left for Washington on Sunday for a meeting with Bush at least three weeks ahead of schedule.
"The failure of the government has forced us into this in the hope that it can provide a solution," said Omar Abdul-Sattar, a lawmaker from al-Hashemi's Iraqi Islamic Party. "The new alliance will form the new government."
The groups engaged in talks have yet to agree on a leader, said lawmaker Hameed Maalah, a senior official of al-Hakim's Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI.
One likely candidate for prime minister, however, was said to be Iraq's other vice president, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, a Shiite who was al-Hakim's choice for the prime minister's job before al-Maliki emerged as a compromise candidate and won.
News of the bid to oust al-Maliki, in office since May, came amid growing dissent over his government's performance among his Sunni and Shiite partners and the damaging fallout from a leaked White House memo questioning the prime minister's abilities.
Washington also has been unhappy with al-Maliki's reluctance to comply with its repeated demands to disband Shiite militias blamed for much of Iraq's sectarian bloodletting.
Bush publicly expressed his confidence in al-Maliki after talks in Jordan on Nov. 30. But the president told White House reporters four days later that he was not satisfied with the pace of efforts to stop Iraq's violence.
It was not immediately clear how much progress had been made in the effort to cobble together a new parliamentary alliance. But lawmakers loyal to al-Sadr who support al-Maliki were almost certainly not going to be a part of it. They had no word on al-Maliki's Dawa party.
They said al-Maliki was livid at the attempt to unseat him.
"We know what's going on and we will sabotage it," said a close al-Maliki aide who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivities involved. He did not elaborate.
A senior aide to al-Sadr, who insisted on anonymity for the same reason, said the proposed alliance was primarily designed to exclude the cleric's backers and they would resist.
Al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militiamen fought U.S. troops for much of 2004 in Baghdad and across central and southern Iraq. It is blamed for most of the sectarian violence raging in Iraq.
The cleric's supporters have been among al-Maliki's strongest backers, ensuring his election as prime minister. Relations have recently frayed, however, with the 30 Sadrist lawmakers and five Cabinet ministers boycotting the government and parliament to protest al-Maliki's meeting with Bush in Jordan.
The al-Sadr aide said recent contacts with the office of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, spiritual leader of most Iraqi Shiites, indicated the Iranian-born al-Sistani was not averse to replacing al-Maliki. Al-Sistani issued an unusually harsh criticism of the government in July.
Al-Hakim's SCIRI, along with parliament's Kurdish bloc and al-Hashemi's Islamic party, are likely to be the major powers of the new alliance. Independent lawmakers are also expected to join, legislators said.
Al-Hashemi's Islamic party said Sunday it would not join any future government unless it had a real voice.
Mahmoud Othman, a prominent Kurdish lawmaker and a sharp government critic, said talks on a new parliamentary alliance were initiated early this year, abandoned and recently resumed.
"This government must offer a remedy for all the problems we have in Iraq or publicly announce that it's unable to do so," said Othman, who is close to the negotiations.
Al-Maliki's government, under the Iraqi constitution, could be ousted if a simple majority of parliament's 275 members opposed it in a vote of confidence. Parties in the talks expressed confidence they had enough votes.
"The question of confidence in this government must be reconsidered," Parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni Arab, told legislators Sunday. "Why should we continue to support it? For its failure?"