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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And now let's turn now to Iraq, where the political situation seems to be lurching from crisis to crisis. There are growing fears that the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is going too far in his attempt to neutralize his opposition. Now even some of Maliki's political allies are threatening to bolt, and that raises concerns about the durability of Iraq's young democratic structure.

NPR's Peter Kenyon was recently in Baghdad and he sent this report.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Not long ago, Prime Minister Maliki held one of his traveling cabinet meetings in the disputed city of Kirkuk - an effort to show Iraqi Arabs on the edge of the Kurdish-controlled north that he's working on their behalf too.

But the fact that he felt obliged to bring in large numbers of heavily armed troops for the event illustrates the tension plaguing Iraqi politics at the moment.

Much of the anger at Maliki is fueled by the belief that he's adopting the governing style of the late Saddam Hussein. The gist of one joke suggests that Maliki has done what the British and the Americans failed to do - unify Iraq's factions. Now they all hate him.

Hamza al-Gurtani comes from a powerful Sunni tribe and is a member of the opposition Iraqiya bloc. He says with no apparent objection from the Americans, Maliki is amassing the kind of power that only a dictator would need.

HAMZA AL-GURTANI: (Through translator) He's packing all the security positions with his followers. It's unreasonable and unworkable for him to be prime minister, defense minister, interior minister and head of intelligence at the same time. It's completely unacceptable.

KENYON: Recently, alarm bells went off when one of Maliki's coalition partners in the Iraqi National Alliance turned against the prime minister. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr threatened to join a new coalition with Iraqiya and the Kurds and force a vote of no confidence in the prime minister. Baghdad analyst Ahmad al-Abyadh says Maliki has made a host of political enemies. The Kurds are convinced he's ready to attack them as soon as the Americans deliver promised F-16 fighter jets to the Iraqi air force. The Sadrists are convinced he's planning to evict them from the ruling coalition, and Abyadh believes another Shiite group in Maliki's bloc, known by the acronym ISKI, could be wavering.

AHMAD AL-ABYADH: (Through translator) The new plan, if reconciliation talks fail, with be for the Sadrists and the ISKI to break away and form a big new coalition with the Kurds and the Iraqiya, big enough to force a no confidence vote and form a new government.

KENYON: On paper it looks like a serious threat to Maliki's rule. But if you ask the prime minister's supporters about a no confidence motion, they tend to laugh and say bring it on.

SAAD MUTTALIBI: Oh, definitely. Just go ahead. You know, we will sit there and laugh at the puny numbers that you will gain in the parliament.

KENYON: Businessman and Maliki backer Saad Muttalibi says those who have actually tried to add up the votes say the opposition is well short at the moment. He says pro-Maliki forces are mounting a counterattack, collecting votes for a no confidence motion against the anti-Maliki speaker of the parliament. And Muttalibi says Sadr is jeopardizing his future in the governing National Alliance by cozying up to the Kurds and Sunnis.

MUTTALIBI: Maybe Muqtada al-Sadr understands that he will not be part of the National Alliance and therefore he wants to make sure there is a sort of an agreement that they will keep him within the game. But he's taking the wrong way in doing it, I think.

KENYON: Analysts say Maliki has some advantages, not least the widespread perception that at the moment there's no one else who stands a better chance of holding the country together. One short list of replacements includes former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who presided during a time of horrific sectarian bloodshed; Ahmed Chalabi, the former exile who helped convince the Bush administration that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction; and Jabr Bakr al-Zubeidi, the Shiite former interior minister at a time of widespread reports of torture and secret prisons. Even critics of Malaki's power grabs, like Sunni politician Hamza al-Gurtani, worry about what might come after Maliki.

HAMZA AL-GURTANI: (Through translator) We're concerned that if there is a vote of no confidence, the country would be plunged into chaos. Despite the many reservations against Maliki, he's a kind of safety valve for Iraq - but only if he enacts real reforms and rids himself of this paranoia.

KENYON: At the moment, the prospects of real reform in Baghdad seem slim, as the government lurches toward another confrontation or another long-shot effort at dialogue and reconciliation. Peter Kenyon, NPR News.

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