In the eight years since becoming prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki — shown at a 2011 news conference in Washington — has resisted Sunni demands for a greater say in governance. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is tightening his hold on power in response to the catastrophe unfolding in Iraq, even as his critics blame his policies for causing the mayhem that is tearing the country apart.

Reinforced by a call to arms from the country’s top Shiite cleric and by promises of support from Iran, Maliki has set about rallying the country’s Shiite majority behind his leadership as Sunni extremists bear down on Baghdad.

Negotiations on the formation of a new government have been suspended, and instead, Shiite factions who had sought to prevent Maliki from securing a third term in office by aligning with Sunni and Kurdish politicians have thrown their support behind him.

The risk of even deeper polarization between the sects is evident. The streets of Baghdad now teem with armed Shiite men, whose response to the clergy’s summoning of fighters has further shored up Maliki’s position.

Sunnis shuddered Tuesday at the news that the body of a Sunni imam and two of his assistants had been discovered in Baghdad’s morgue, four days after they were detained by men wearing government uniforms. The episode echoed the sectarian bloodletting that raged in the middle of the last decade, and it reinforced fears that a new round of killings could be imminent.

As sectarian violence in Iraq escalates dramatically, what is at stake for the U.S.? The Post's diplomatic correspondent Anne Gearan, senior national security correspondent Karen DeYoung, chief White House correspondent Scott Wilson, and The Fix's Chris Cillizza weigh in on ramifications in the Beltway and beyond. (Julie Percha/The Washington Post)

Officials close to Maliki acknowledge that his exclusionary politics and failure to reach out to Sunnis may have contributed to the ease with which predominantly Sunni parts of the country have fallen under the control of al-Qaeda-linked extremists over the past week.

But with the insurgents pressing south with their offensive in the direction of the capital, “this is not a good time to solve these problems,” said Maliki’s spokesman, Ali al-Musawi.

“No one is discussing the third term now,” he said. “What we are discussing now is how to regain those cities and confront this attack.”

There is also no discussion, he said, of Maliki offering the kinds of concessions the Obama administration says it is seeking before offering more military assistance to drive back the insurgents.

In an apparent nod to U.S. pressure, Maliki attended a meeting Tuesday night alongside leading Shiite figures — including some who had sought his ouster — and several Sunni leaders in what was intended as a display of national unity.

The gathering also sent a strong signal of support for the prime minister. In a statement, the participants called on the country to rally against the “terrorists,” as well as for an end to sectarian hate speech and for civilians to stop carrying guns.

But the meeting did not include some of Maliki’s leading Sunni critics or commit to any specific reforms, and it ended with the most prominent Sunni participant, parliament speaker Osama Nujaifi, walking away without speaking to Maliki, Reuters reported.

Now is not the time for discussing the kind of political reforms sought by Maliki’s opponents that “would serve to create tensions.” Musawi said. “What we need is to set differences aside and confront terrorists.”

Many in Iraq, as well as the U.S. government, blame Maliki’s repeated failures to reach out to Sunnis for the schism laid bare when fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) swept into the northern city of Mosul last week. Their arrival triggered mass defections within the ranks of the U.S.-trained security forces and celebrations among Sunni residents at the departure of the hated government troops.

In the eight years since he took power, Maliki has consistently resisted Sunni demands for a greater say in running the country, and he has routinely exploited his stewardship of the armed forces to defang his opponents. His attempt to arrest his Sunni vice president as the last U.S. troops were leaving Iraq in 2011 and the crackdown against a Sunni protest site in the western city of Ramadi in December are just two examples of his efforts to muffle dissent.

Toby Dodge of the London School of Economics, who has written a book on Maliki’s increasingly dictatorial rule, said he sees irony in the way Maliki is turning the current crisis to his advantage.

“With his sectarian behavior . . . he was directly responsible for driving the alienation of the Sunni population,” he said. “Now he is stepping forward and saying to his petrified Shiite population: ‘I am the only one who can sort this out.’ ”

Indeed, such is Maliki’s reputation for manipulative politics that even many Shiites on the streets of Baghdad believe he engineered the takeover of Mosul in order to deflect political rivals’ effort to replace him.

“You only need to watch the TV. There is no more talk about the elections,” said Abu Zaid, 51, a car mechanic in central Baghdad. “It was a trick for him to stay in power.”

The view is widely shared, but so is the opinion that now is not the time for him to step down.

“Maliki should resign. He is responsible for this,” said Aqil Ali, 25, who works in a juice shop. “But it is difficult. How could we change leaders at a time like this?”

That Maliki asked terrorists to capture half the country to secure his hold on power seems far-fetched. The crisis has, however, put Maliki, 63, back in familiar territory, leading Shiites against a Sunni threat.

A former schoolteacher from the southern Shiite city of Karbala, in 1979 Maliki fled a brutal crackdown against his Dawa Party by Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led regime. He spent decades in exile, mostly in Syria, before returning after the U.S. invasion.

Back in Iraq, he headed a parliamentary committee charged with hunting down former members of Hussein’s Baath Party before being anointed as prime minister after a divisive election in 2005, just as the Sunni insurgency against the U.S. occupation of Iraq was peaking.

For the next six years, before U.S. troops withdrew in 2011, American diplomats repeatedly pressed Maliki to be more inclusive, but they were not insistent, said Dodge. When the party of Maliki’s rival, Ayad Allawi, won slightly more seats in parliament than Maliki’s in the 2010 elections, the U.S. Embassy backed Maliki’s bid for the premiership over Allawi’s because they feared a transition of power could destabilize the country. But mechanisms that the Obama administration envisaged to dilute Maliki’s expanding powers were never implemented, and after the troops left, the pressure on him eased.

Not all the recent opposition to Maliki is sectarian in origin. Until last week’s upheaval, a faction loyal to the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and another aligned with the Shiite politician Ammar al-Hakim were in talks with Sunni and Kurdish leaders about forming an alliance that would deny Maliki a third term in office. Sadr has frequently referred to Maliki as a “dictator” and a “tyrant,” descriptions that reflect a wider unhappiness with his reputedly high-handed approach to governance.

The Sunni extremists’ sweep has obliged Shiites to stand behind Maliki, said Raad al-Khafaji, a Shiite tribal figure and leader in Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia who has opened a recruitment center for volunteers enlisting to fight ISIS.

“The Sadrists were peaceful opponents of Maliki, but with foreign forces attacking our country, politicians need to unite against this aggression,” he said in his office as Mahdi Army militiamen who once faced down joint operations by U.S. and Iraqi troops milled about.

After the dismal performance of his security forces and the loss of so much territory, Maliki cannot survive in the long term, predicted Hamid al-Mutlaq, a Sunni in Allawi’s secular bloc who still hopes that a coalition can be formed to choose a new prime minister. None of Mutlaq’s putative coalition partition partners has been in touch since the crisis erupted.

“They want to get rid of Maliki, but because of the situation they can’t say so now,” he said. “Maliki has used this crisis to make people feel in danger, so that they feel he has to stay.”

Given the speed with which ISIS fighters overran large swaths of the country last week, Maliki’s future is far from assured. No one here rules out an ISIS takeover of the capital or military intervention by the United States or any of Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran, any of which could send the country hurtling on yet another unexpected trajectory.

But if Maliki rides out the threat, with or without foreign help, “he will survive this smoothly and be so powerful,” said Emad al-Shara, an Iraqi blogger. “He will stay for another four years, and maybe more.”