DANGEROUS STALEMATE AFTER IRAQI ELECTION
More than six weeks after Iraq's inconclusive general elections, the country is still nowhere near having a new government.
While there has been much manoeuvring and shadow-boxing since the 7 March poll, serious negotiations to build the coalition needed to gain a parliamentary majority have not even begun.
Nor can they, until the election results are finally certified by the federal court.
And that step alone could still be several weeks away, pushing the emergence of a new government even further back.
At this rate, early estimates that it might appear in July are looking optimistic.
The scheduled withdrawal of all US combat forces by the end of August has created an unofficial deadline.
But that is a gradual process rather than a one-off event, so in practice it is unlikely to have much effect in speeding up the complex wrangling that will fill the coming weeks, perhaps months.
By the same token, US officials have made it clear that failure to produce a government by the end of August will have no effect on the schedule to reduce American troop levels down to 50,000 “advisers and trainers”.
Nouri Maliki's coalition has been engaged in merger talks
The latest source of delay to the political process is the decision, announced on Monday by the judicial review panel of the Independent Higher Election Commission, to order a manual recount of the 2.5m votes cast in the Baghdad constituency.
Officials estimate that that recount alone could take around three weeks. There are many other complaints and appeals that remain to be adjudicated.
That all has to be done – and there is no deadline for it – before the federal court can sign off on the results and set in motion the real struggle over the new government.
Even the slightest change resulting from the Baghdad recount or other complaints could change the line-up when the starter's pistol is fired.
The recount was ordered after a complaint from incumbent Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, whose State of Law coalition came second in the nationwide results, just two seats behind the Iraqiyya list of his secular challenger, Iyad Allawi.
Whoever has the most parliamentary seats, even if only one ahead, should be asked by the president to try to form a new government.
On that basis, Mr Allawi's bloc is insisting that it has the right to lead the new administration, and is threatening to pull out of the process if he is denied that chance.
But even that principle is being challenged by Mr Maliki, who obtained a high court finding that first crack of the whip should go to whoever can assemble the broadest coalition behind him in the new parliament, irrespective of how his own faction scored in the elections.
Mr Maliki's largely-Shia coalition – based on his religious al-Daawa party – has been engaged in merger talks with the other big Shia grouping, the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), which came in third with 70 seats.
If the two factions merged – as they did in the last elections four years ago – they would command 159 seats in parliament, just a handful short of the 163 majority needed to rule.
The country's Kurdish President, Jalal Talabani, set Kurdish political feathers flying by suggesting that if the two Shia coalitions teamed up, the Kurdistan alliance would join them and accept their choice of prime minister.
But at the moment, the Shia merger talks do not seem to be going well.
Getting them all to fit together is like trying to cram four large people into a small phone booth, all of them vying to pick up the phone
Mr Maliki admitted on Monday that they had so far been barren and inconclusive.
His problem is that the biggest element in the INA, the faction loyal to militant cleric Moqtada Sadr, is bitterly opposed to Mr Maliki gaining a second term.
Ammar al-Hakim, the leader of the second-biggest INA element, the Iraqi Islamic Supreme Council, said on Sunday that neither of the two main contenders, Mr Maliki and Mr Allawi, seemed likely to be successful.
It has become an issue not of what, but of who.
There is general agreement all round that all four of the coalitions that came out of the elections with strong showings – Mr Allawi's Iraqiyya (91 seats), Mr Maliki's State of Law (89), the INA (70) and the Kurdistan alliance (43) – should take part in a new government of “national partnership”.
A simple enough principle you might think.
But getting them all to fit together is like trying to cram four large people into a small phone booth, all of them vying to pick up the phone.
If his prospective Shia partners are not keen on Mr Maliki, the Kurds are equally unenthusiastic, and support for him from Mr Allawi's bloc is out of the question.
But persuading the incumbent to relinquish his ambition for a second term will be hard and take time, especially if the election results tilt in his favour when the review process is completed.
If Mr Allawi was to be invited to have first try at forming a government, it is doubtful whether he would succeed either.
Ammar al-Hakim is not offering to back the two main contenders
He would have to persuade the second Shia coalition, the INA, which is religious-based, to back his secular leadership, and he would also need support from the Kurdish alliance or some of the small, single-figure factions.
And that would exclude Mr Maliki's State of Law, which everybody wants included – though preferably without Mr Maliki himself, and certainly not with him as prime minister again.
In broad terms, 60% of Iraq's population are Shia, who were generally disempowered under Saddam Hussein's rule.
Whatever their differences – which are mainly focused on the person of Mr Maliki – the two big Shia alliances are unlikely to let leadership pass to a secular figure whose support came very largely from Saddam's minority Sunni community.
Although his coalition came out with a tiny lead over the rival blocs in the results as they currently stand, Iyad Allawi won only 30% of the seats.
The problem is that if he and Mr Maliki are both ruled out as the next prime minister, there are few credible figures to hand who could emerge as compromise candidates.
Ibrahim Jaafari, who led the first brief interim post-Saddam government in 2005, is a possible contender.
He belongs to the Shia INA coalition, and would likely be supported by it. The Daawa-based State of Law alliance might back him, but only if it had jettisoned Mr Maliki or he had stood down.
The Kurds do not like Mr Jaafari, and Mr Allawi's list would be equally unlikely to line up behind him.
New voting system
It is also hard to see a lesser-known compromise candidate emerge, as Mr Maliki himself did in 2006.
That's because this year's election adopted a new voting system whereby the popularity of individual candidates became clear.
None of the possible compromise figures being mentioned scored personal votes anywhere near as high as Mr Maleki or Mr Allawi.
Given all this, it is easy to see the process going round and round in futile circles for a very long time, with no clear way out.
And there are obvious dangers.
If the two big Shia blocs should find a way of teaming up and join up with the Kurds, Mr Allawi's bloc would probably go into opposition, leaving the bulk of the Sunnis feeling even more marginalised than they already do.
Sunni disillusion and resentment were major factors fuelling the insurgency.
Fears have also been expressed that a prolonged period of political turmoil might leave a vacuum that the insurgents could exploit as the Americans reduce their presence.
And such is the intensity of the political struggle – and the novelty of democracy in the region – that no-one can be totally confident that the disputes might not spill into the streets.