By Ned Parker
BAGHDAD, June 23 (Reuters) - In eight years in power, Iraq's prime minister Nuri al-Maliki has never faced such a threat. Swathes of his country have fallen to Sunni insurgents. Rivals are seeking his downfall. Foreign sponsors in Washington and Tehran are wary or worse. Even friends are openly contemplating his demise.
Yet the virtuoso player of Iraq's political game shows no sign of surrendering any time soon.
His opponents say Maliki is responsible for the vehemence of the insurgency because of policies that alienated Sunnis, pushing tribes to back a revolt by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which seized the main northern city Mosul on June 10 and has since marched virtually unopposed towards Baghdad.
Washington, while publicly saying it has no plan to pick Iraq's rulers, has made clear it wants more inclusive leadership in Baghdad. Iran, which has widespread influence among Iraq's Shi'ite parties, has played its cards close but has conspicuously avoided rallying around Maliki.
Even members of Maliki's own bloc now concede that the combative 64-year-old Islamist may need to go, if rival Shi'ite groups as well as Sunnis and Kurds are to be assembled into a new ruling coalition.
"Iraq after June 10 is not the same as before. Everything has changed," said a senior member of Maliki's coalition on condition of anonymity. "Everything is on the table ... If the others insist they will only go forward if Maliki is not prime minister, we are ready to discuss it."
"Maliki will be included in this decision-making and the transition must be smooth. I think he has an open mind about it, and is weighing options. He understands it might come to that," the senior ally said. A second member of Maliki's coalition confirmed there was talk of replacing him from within.
Six weeks ago, Maliki seemed more secure in power than ever. In an election, his State of Law coalition emerged as easily the biggest party, with 94 seats in the 325-seat legislature. Two rival Shi'ite blocs that had hoped to unseat him fell far short, winning only about 30 seats each.
In a television address the morning after the vote, he mused with characteristic diffidence that he served only at the nation's request.
"My mother didn't give birth to me so I could become prime minister. I was born to be a farmer, labourer, student or an official," he said. "I have the honour to serve my country."
Despite the pressure since then, Maliki could still hold on. Infighting among his own list and other Shi'ite candidates aspiring for his job may let him triumph again.
The senior Maliki ally said the premier does not want to end his term as the man who presided over Iraq's dissolution. Some, like his close friend Sami Askari, a former parliamentarian, say Iraq cannot afford a leadership change now.
"People are rallying and marching behind Maliki because of ISIL," Askari said. "His chances are still strong."
Ultimately, ditching Maliki may be the price his State of Law bloc needs to pay to form a ruling coalition. Iraqi politicians say the lack of endorsements from Washington and Tehran have emboldened rivals to insist on Maliki's departure.
But the negotiations have barely begun. Parliament, riven with factionalism and egos, is now set to meet by July 1 to begin the process of agreeing the new government, which could take months, leaving Maliki in power as caretaker leader while the war against ISIL rumbles on.
"I ASSUME HE GOT THE MESSAGE"
Washington and Tehran are both pushing for a swift resolution. The United States insists it will not choose the next leader of Iraq, but Secretary of State John Kerry, who met Maliki in Baghdad on Monday, has said openly that Washington is aware that Sunnis, Kurds and other Shi'ites are dissatisfied.
Meetings between Maliki and U.S. diplomats last week were heated, according to a Western diplomat briefed on the sessions by a participant. U.S. officials told Maliki he would need to step aside if he no longer had parliamentary support for a third term, the diplomat said.
"I assume he got the message, but I wouldn't be surprised if he tries to get around it," the western diplomat said, adding a phone call with Vice President Joseph Biden was initially cancelled due to the friction generated by the meetings. The phone call was finally held last Wednesday.
The White House and the U.S. embassy have denied any message has been conveyed to Maliki to leave power. In private, however, U.S. officials, shorn of influence and mindful of a backlash, have hoped for change.
The disenchantment cuts both ways. Maliki's close friend Askari described the prime minister in recent days as sour towards the United States, stung by sharp criticism from members of the U.S. Congress and over President Barrack Obama's lukewarm support and failure to provide U.S. air strikes.
"There is a bitterness in Maliki's tone when he talks ... about the American role, even what is going on in DC, with speeches in Congress and Obama's speech," Askari said. "He... has no hope. He says we have to rely on ourselves."
Commenting on last week's meetings with U.S. diplomats, Askari said: "I heard that it was tense and I expect it because he is not happy with their way.
"Maliki has no time to sit with anyone just to hear advice and criticism. He needs someone to deliver something to help him. He did not see this."
The Baghdad government's other major international supporter, Iran, has also been less than enthusiastic in its support for Maliki, although it is not clear if it would be willing to sacrifice him to pursue a coalition.
"Iran respects the Iraqi nation's choice. If they don't want their Prime Minister Maliki, why should we support him?" a senior Iranian official told Reuters over the weekend.
A second senior Iranian official said Iran backs Maliki, but not unreservedly as it does Syria's President Bashar al-Assad.
"Iran's backing of Maliki is limited and conditional," the second official said. "Iran's ambassador to Iraq has already conveyed this message to Maliki. Iran believes that Maliki should immediately form a wide-ranging cabinet, but at the same time believes that it might be too late."
The sudden dash across northern Iraq by armed groups, led the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) which seeks to annihilate Shi'ites, has left Maliki exposed. Crucially, ISIL fighters have received support from Sunni tribes who once fought bitterly against them, a sign of widespread Sunni alienation from Baghdad since the end of U.S. occupation.
Maliki's critics say his rule, particularly in the past four years, is to blame for that polarisation.
While U.S. troops were still in the country, Maliki, a member of a Shi'ite political party that fought underground against Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, was under strong pressure to reach out to Sunnis and build an inclusive government. He earned Washington's support for confronting Shi'ite militias.
In the last election in 2010, just before the Americans left, Maliki tried to transcend sectarian politics, but placed a close second to a secularist bloc that was backed by many Sunnis. To stay in power, he assembled a parliamentary bloc of religious Shi'ites, later reneging on power-sharing deals.
On the day U.S. troops completed their withdrawal in 2011, Maliki's government issued an arrest warrant for the Sunni vice president, tearing up the vestiges of what Sunnis saw as a constitutional arrangement designed to ensure inclusive rule.
In the years that followed, security unravelled as Sunni militants took advantage of the government's hardline stance towards Sunnis. The tit-for-tat of Sunni violence targeting Shi'ites and government reprisals fuelled a downward spiral.
The senior Maliki ally said U.S. diplomats have now effectively told him he must step down if it becomes clear that Sunni, Kurdish and rival Shi'ite parliamentary blocs will not back him for a third term.
"They think according to the political situation in the country and what's happening in Sunni areas in the country, Maliki cannot push other parties in the country for a third term," the Maliki ally said. "Maliki has become a polarising symbol to others, regardless of how he is performing."
He said U.S. officials had encouraged State of Law to find alternative candidates, and Washington's position was emboldening other parties to insist on Maliki's departure.
"Once the other parties understand the position of the U.S., they will be strengthened in rejecting Maliki. It gives them a psychological boost." (Editing by Peter Graff)