BAGHDAD -- Major partners in Iraq's governing coalition are in behind-the-scenes talks to oust Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki amid discontent over his failure to quell raging violence, according to lawmakers involved.
The talks are aimed at forming a new parliamentary bloc that would seek to replace the current government and that would possibly exclude supporters of the radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a vehement opponent of the US military presence.
The new alliance would be led by senior Shi'ite politician Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, who met with President Bush last week. Hakim, however, was not expected to be the next prime minister, because he prefers the role of powerbroker, staying above the grinding day-to-day running of the country.
A key figure in the proposed alliance, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Arab, left for Washington yesterday for a meeting with Bush at least three weeks ahead of schedule.
"The failure of the government has forced us into this in the hope that it can provide a solution," said Omar Abdul-Sattar, a lawmaker from Hashemi's Iraqi Islamic Party. "The new alliance will form the new government."
The groups engaged in talks have yet to agree on a leader, said lawmaker Hameed Maalah, a senior official of Hakim's Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq .
One likely candidate for prime minister, however, was said to be Iraq's other vice president, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, a Shi'ite who was Hakim's choice for the prime minister's job before Maliki emerged as a compromise candidate and won.
News of the bid to oust Maliki, in office since May, came amid growing dissent over his government's performance among his Sunni and Shi'ite partners and the damaging fallout from a leaked White House memo questioning the prime minister's abilities.
Washington also has been unhappy with Maliki's reluctance to comply with its repeated demands to disband Shi'ite militias blamed for much of Iraq's sectarian bloodletting.
Bush publicly expressed his confidence in Maliki after talks in Jordan on Nov. 30. But the president told White House reporters four days later that he was not satisfied with the pace of efforts to stop Iraq's violence.
It was not immediately clear how much progress had been made in the effort to cobble together a new parliamentary alliance. But lawmakers loyal to Sadr who support Maliki were almost certainly not going to be a part of it. They had no word on Maliki's Dawa party.
They said Maliki was livid at the effort to unseat him.
"We know what's going on and we will sabotage it," said a close Maliki aide who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivities involved. He did not elaborate.
A senior aide to Sadr, who insisted on anonymity for the same reason, said the proposed alliance was primarily designed to exclude the cleric's backers and they would resist.
Sadr's Mahdi Army militiamen fought US troops for much of 2004 in Baghdad and across central and southern Iraq. It is blamed for most of the sectarian violence raging in Iraq.
The cleric's supporters have been among Maliki's strongest backers .