Why the delay?
What is stopping Iraqi politicians from forming a new government, asks Salah Hemeid
More than four months after the country's parliamentary elections, Iraqi politicians are still negotiating the formation of a new government, giving rise to fears that the deadlock may create the political vacuum necessary to plunge the country into another round of sectarian violence.
On Tuesday, Iraq's parliament was supposed to convene to begin the process of choosing a new prime minister. However, the country's various political blocs did not turn up for the meeting, delaying the session for a further two weeks.
With many Iraqis describing this new postponement as unconstitutional, there are widespread fears that the ongoing political crisis over who will lead the country will now escalate further.
The parliament had previously convened on 13 June, the country's constitution stating that the president should be selected within 30 days of its convocation. The possibility of further delay raises the question of whether inaction is flouting a constitution that many Iraqis believe has already been violated by politicians.
Iraqi voters went to the polls on 7 March to elect a new 325-member parliament, but an indecisive result, and bickering over who should be the country's next prime minister, has delayed the formation of a new government and plunged the country into political stalemate.
Under the country's constitution the Iraqi parliament should have convened 15 days after the results were announced in order to elect a speaker, and a new president should have been elected within 30 days of the parliament's first session. The president should then have nominated the new prime minister, who should have submitted his cabinet within 30 days for ratification.
According to an understanding that emerged after Iraq's first post-Saddam elections in 2005, a Shia Arab would be prime minister, a Kurd president, and a Sunni Arab speaker of the parliament. This quota system also covers top jobs, such as ambassadors and senior government and army posts, and the country's Shias and Kurds have been insisting on the quota system despite strong Sunni opposition.
The current stalemate over the formation of a new government has been in large part caused by the struggle between the country's caretaker Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, who leads the Shia State of Law Coalition, and former prime minister Iyad Allawi, who leads the Sunni-backed Iraqiya slate, for the post of prime minister in the new government.
Allawi's slim election victory of 91 seats to Al-Maliki's 89 in the March elections further confused Iraq's political landscape and exposed the country's deep-rooted sectarian divide. Since the results of the elections were announced, both men have insisted that he should be the country's next prime minister, further polarising the nation's political and sectarian landscape.
Many Shias believe that Allawi is a sympathiser of the former ruling Baath Party, and they suspect that his Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc will undermine their hard-won empowerment since the US-led invasion of the country in 2003.
It is against this background that Iraq's two main Shia-led electoral blocs, Al-Maliki's State of Law Coalition and the Iraqi National Alliance, led by cleric Ammar Al-Hakim, have agreed to form a larger coalition to give them a majority in the parliament and help them maintain control of the government.
However, the two blocs have thus far failed to come to an agreement over who should be prime minister, with Al-Maliki insisting on a second term and factions within the Iraqi National Alliance opposing his ambitions and seeking to clip his wings.
Sunni voters, who boycotted the 2005 elections, threw their weight behind Allawi in the 2010 elections, in the hope that they would be able to gain enough power within the new government to end what has been seen as their loss of influence since the collapse of the Saddam regime.
Sunni resentment at perceptions of growing Shia power sparked a seven-year insurgency in the country, and Sunni participation in the next government is seen as crucial in ensuring that Iraq does not slide back into sectarian conflict after the withdrawal of US forces from the country, beginning this year.
Meanwhile, the country's Kurds, the other main winners of the March elections, continue to weigh their options regarding possible scenarios for the formation of a new government in Baghdad.
The Kurds insist that they should retain the post of president, currently held by Jalal Talabani, and that they should receive a written pledge from their would-be partners on the resolution of disputes including the oil-rich Kirkuk district, claimed by the Kurds as part of the Kurdish region.
Some reports have suggested that the Kurds have been under American pressure to soften their demands and accept the post of speaker of parliament instead of president.
The Shia spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Sistani has played a key role in the country's politics since the US-led March 2003 invasion, though in the wake of this year's elections he has thus far refused to endorse any candidate, even though many Iraqis look to him as a decisive voice in resolving the dispute.
On Friday, Sistani's spokesman Sheikh Abdel-Mahdi Al-Karbalai said that the cleric was ready to intervene to try to end the political deadlock that was hampering the formation of a new government.
With Iraqi politicians unable to agree on the formation of a new government, violence remains endemic in the country, refuting claims by Iraqi and American officials that it is diminishing.
Dozens of people are still being killed by suicide bombers every week, and with continuing violence, and still no functioning government, concerns are growing about Iraq's stability as the US prepares to withdraw its forces from the country by the end of next year.
There has been increasing violence in the months following the elections, including suicide bombings, attacks by magnetic bombs, usually stuck to civilian cars, arson attacks on army and police posts and assassinations of government officials.
Iraqi leaders are largely blamed for the political stalemate, with many Iraqis saying that the politicians are unable to put Iraqi national interests above their own partisan ambitions. According to some estimates, two-thirds of the current government's income is being embezzled by the political elite.
Transparency International, an international NGO, now ranks Iraq among the world's most corrupt countries, standing at 176 out of the 180 countries surveyed, along with Burma and Somalia.
Nevertheless, the Obama administration has insisted that it will keep to the 31 August deadline for the start of US troop withdrawals from Iraq, regardless of the outcome of the political wrangling over the new government's formation.
Last week, US Vice-President Joe Biden visited Iraq to press the rival political groups to end their bickering over forming a new government.
Outgoing US ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill has said that Biden will return to Iraq soon, though many Iraqis fear that Biden, who has previously called for federalising Iraq and giving autonomy to the country's Kurdish, Shia, and Sunni communities, might not be a suitable broker.
The failure of Iraqi politicians to resolve the dispute over forming a new government is also widely feared to be at the risk of external interference.
Iraqi Shias have accused Arab Sunni countries and Turkey of seeking to influence the country's political deadlock by supporting the country's Sunnis, while the Sunnis say that Iran is backing Shias in the government.
There is already evidence that the solution to Iraq's deepening political crisis might already have been taken out of the hands of the Iraqi leaders and be resting in the hands of foreign and regional powers.
With the possibility of renewed conflict in the country if the political crisis is not resolved, questions are being raised about long- term US commitments in Iraq.
While US officials say the planned troop withdrawal does not signify that the US is losing interest in the country, many Iraqis believe that US policy in Iraq is adrift and is focused on withdrawal rather than on building long- term ties and stability.
While a broad coalition of Shia Arabs, Sunni Arabs and Kurds will probably emerge to run the country, the March elections have thus far only made Iraq's sectarian and ethnic rivalries sharper.
However, the country's oil wealth, and fears of a broader regional conflict, may yet prevent Iraq from falling into renewed civil strife.