AMMAN, Jordan - In the lobbies of luxury hotels and the apartments of exiles, an assortment of Iraqi politicians has been spending the summer vacation plotting a new Iraqi coup -- a non-violent, parliamentary coup to be sure, but a coup nonetheless, that would oust Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, declare a state of emergency and install a new government.
At the forefront of these efforts is former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who was Washington's first choice to lead Iraq after the U.S. occupation authority ended. He now is being presented by his followers as the best hope of saving Iraq from what they say is certain catastrophe.
But Allawi's is by no means the only name in circulation. Another former prime minister, two current vice presidents, a former planning minister, an Iraqi general from the old regime and an independent Sunni parliamentarian are among those being mentioned as potential alternatives.
"Everyone is desperate to be prime minister," said Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni politician who has thrown his support behind Allawi but who has also been mentioned as a potential candidate. "Iraq is producing prime ministers."
The dream of dislodging the Shiite-led government by forming a coalition from a disparate assortment of disgruntled Sunnis, Shiites and secularists dates to the beginning of the year, when the plotting to replace al-Maliki began in earnest in the relative safety of Amman. But the effort was given new momentum by a statement from President Bush last week, in which he hinted for the first time that U.S. support for al-Maliki was waning.
"If the government doesn't ... respond to the demands of the people, they will replace the government," Bush said at a news conference in Quebec. "That's up to the Iraqis to make that decision, not American politicians."
Al-Maliki's opponents are making their way back to Baghdad in time for Monday's reopening of parliament determined to do just that, by forming a parliamentary majority that could outvote the Shiite-Kurdish coalition on which al-Maliki depends.
In a bid to muster Kurdish support, aides said Allawi plans to meet this weekend in Kurdistan with the region's president, Massoud Barzani, and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
"There's been a definite change in tone from Washington, and the momentum and drive to support Allawi will increase," said Jaafar al-Taie, a political analyst involved in the new coalition's campaign. "It's not only that Maliki must go, but that the whole system must go."
According to Allawi's published program, the parliamentarians would not only appoint a new government but also suspend the new constitution, declare a state of emergency and make the restoration of security its priority.
Encouraged by signs
Whether the U.S. would countenance what amounts effectively to the unraveling of the entire political process built since its March 2003 invasion is unclear. The day after he seemed to endorse al-Maliki's removal, Bush backtracked, reiterating his support for the prime minister and calling him a "good guy."
But Allawi's supporters are heartened by signs that Washington is coming round to the view that al-Maliki might not be a permanent figure.
Two days before Bush spoke, Allawi signed a $300,000 contract with the Washington lobbying firm of Barbour, Griffiths and Rogers to represent his interests, according to a copy of the contract obtained by the Web site Iraqslogger.com and confirmed by Allawi on CNN. The head of the firm's international relations department is Robert Blackwill, a longtime adviser to Bush who served as his special envoy to Iraq.
"Even when Bush tried to modify what he said, he did not go so far," said Izzat Shabandar, a strategist with the Allawi bloc. "We know that Bush from inside would like to replace Maliki, but he did not say it clearly. He chose to say it in a diplomatic way."
As a secularist, Allawi has pledged to end the politics of sectarianism that have plagued Iraq. He is pro-Western, an old Washington ally, who would seek to prise Iraq away from Iran's sphere of influence. He also has the support of former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party and most Iraqi Sunni insurgent groups, excluding Al Qaeda in Iraq, which have indicated they would stop fighting if Allawi were installed.
But those features also make him unpalatable to the Shiite majority, who suffered most under Baathist rule and who have borne the brunt of the insurgency's wrath. Allawi's 10-month tenure in 2004-05 was marked by rampant allegations of corruption, and several of his closest aides have been charged in connection with millions of missing dollars.
So other alternatives are being pondered. The name of Adel Abdel-Mahdi, the current Shiite vice president, frequently crops up. He was favored by the U.S. over al-Maliki after the last election, and he has Shiite and Kurdish support.
But Abdel-Mahdi is also a member of the Iran-founded and backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, making him unacceptable to many of the staunchly anti-Iranian Sunnis falling into line behind Allawi.
Former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who succeeded Allawi, is also back in the picture, making a push to lead a breakaway faction of al-Maliki's Dawa Party. But al-Jaafari hardly fared better than al-Maliki, his former aide, as prime minister, and many Sunnis remain deeply suspicious of him.
Other names circulating include lesser-known figures with no grass-roots support but also no controversial ties, such as the former planning minister in Allawi's government, Mehdi al-Hafidh; an independent Sunni parliamentarian, Mithal al-Alusi; and even a former general in Hussein's army, Raed al-Hamdani.
Still, the parliamentary math doesn't add up in favor of the Allawi bloc. To secure a majority, the coalition must win the support of the Kurds, who thus far have remained staunchly behind their Shiite allies, or the Sadrist bloc loyal to anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr.
Sadr has withdrawn his ministers from al-Maliki's government, and his aides have met several times with the Allawi bloc. But Sadr's suspension of the Mahdi Army militia's activities earlier this week was taken as a sign of support for al-Maliki ahead of the crucial progress report due to be delivered this month to Congress by Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq.
Though Allawi has flown from Amman, where he usually lives, to Kurdistan to try to woo Kurdish leaders, several previous efforts in the past have foundered on the Kurds' conviction that a Shiite-led government would better secure their interests in the new Iraq.
Nonetheless, al-Maliki's failure thus far to deliver on almost all the key measures of progress set forth by the Bush administration and evidence that his coalition is falling apart suggest Washington may soon have to explore alternatives, said al-Mutlaq.
"The Americans finally will support us because they don't have another solution," he said, sipping tea and chain-smoking in the coffee shop at one of Amman's top hotels as a steady stream of Iraqi exiles and members of parliament wandered in and out. "If all these things don't work out, it is the people who will make a coup. They will rise up, and there will be a coup all over Iraq."
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
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