Problems Deepen for Iraqi Prime Minister

The Associated Press
Saturday, June 16, 2007; 3:15 AM

BAGHDAD -- For Iraq's embattled prime minister, the Askariya shrine bombing could not have come at a worse time and could end up bringing down Nouri al-Maliki's unpopular government.

Al-Maliki had sufficient troubles before suspected al-Qaida-linked Sunni militants brought down the Shiite shrine's two minarets Wednesday in the second such attack on the site in nearly 16 months.

"Now, this government is in a race against time," said Ali al-Adeeb, a top Shiite lawmaker close to the prime minister. "The government is going through a critical phase and there are real fears that things can spiral out of control," he said, noting heightened political tensions after the bombing in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad.

The United States has put al-Maliki on notice to move quickly on a package of laws it views as essential for reconciliation and the success of its military operation to calm Baghdad and surrounding regions.

U.S. officials here must issue progress reports to Congress next month and again in September, and al-Maliki finally may have run up against an implied, if not stated, deadline.

But with parliament likely to take a summer break in August, al-Maliki has only six weeks left to push through the legislation _ not an easy task given the slow pace of work and unresolved differences over the draft laws.

Al-Maliki's domestic backers, the Shiites and Kurds, are growing unhappier by the day about the decision-making monopoly the prime minister and close aides have accrued to themselves.

They may not act against him now, but they may be emboldened soon given his vulnerability and the unusually harsh criticism of the government over the bombing by Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose every word is waited on by Iraq's Shiites.

Al-Maliki has been doing damage control, announcing in a tense televised address that local policemen in charge of the shrine protection have been detained for questioning. Seeking to deflect negligence charges, he said he had planned for a large army security force to deploy Saturday at the holy site.

"I am warning those fishing in troubled waters against maligning the national unity government and its legitimacy," al-Maliki warned critics hours after the bombing, which has the potential to touch off a new explosion of sectarian violence that could plunge the country deeper into chaos and weaken his government.

Already, Sunni Arab partners in the government are openly trying to form a new bloc in parliament to vote al-Maliki out, sounding out potential participants from among Shiite and Kurdish groups while getting subtle and quiet backing from powerful Sunni Arab states.

Muqtada al-Sadr, a key Shiite leader whose support for al-Maliki has recently waned, took the lead in assailing the government over the bombing, ordering his 30-lawmaker bloc to boycott the parliament to protest its failure to protect the shrine.

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