BAGHDAD: A fugitive vice president condemned to death and rallying opposition to Iraq's "sectarian" prime minister, fresh bloodshed in the streets and the entire Middle East divided by religion over the war across the border in Syria - Nuri al-Maliki has no easy task in holding his government, and his nation, together.
The Iraqi premier was denounced on Monday by Sunni Muslim Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi as a conspirator and oppressor, in league with fellow Shi'ites in Iran and driven by religious hatred to engineer the death sentence handed down on Hashemi on Sunday for murders committed by sectarian death squads.
The verdict against a mainstream leader of Iraq's once-dominant Sunni minority was accompanied by bombings and attacks on Shi'ite targets that killed about 115 people, making it one of the bloodiest days since U.S. troops pulled out in December. Maliki's government was quick to blame Sunni insurgents.
Hashemi, speaking from exile in Turkey, called for "calm" but firm opposition to a premier whose efforts to stitch together an administration uniting Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds have looked distinctly ragged since an arrest warrant for the vice president was issued the very day after the Americans left.
"Yesterday Prime Minister Maliki and his ... judiciary concluded the final phase of the theatrical campaign against me using a kangaroo court," Hashemi told a news conference in Ankara. "My people, don't give Maliki and those who stand behind him the chance ... They want to make this a sectarian conflict.
"Oppose his conspiracies and provocation calmly."
Iraq's domestic troubles pitch the majority Shi'ites, long oppressed until U.S. forces deposed Saddam Hussein in 2003, against Saddam's fellow Sunni Arabs, as well as a substantial ethnic Kurdish minority. Tensions are particularly high over the distribution of Iraq's potentially massive oil wealth.
But the country of 32 million also straddles the region's ethnic and sectarian faultline across which the Sunni, Western-allied leaders of most other Arab states confront Shi'ite, non-Arab Iran and allies including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
MALIKI IN CONTROL
For many Iraqi Sunni leaders, the Hashemi case was a clear example of political manipulation of the judiciary by a Shi'ite leader who they say controls the security forces by keeping a personal grip on the vital defence and interior ministries.
Since the fall of Saddam nine years ago and the rise of Shi'ite leaders in U.S.-sponsored elections, many Iraqi Sunnis feel they have been sidelined. Sunni politicians accuse Maliki of failing to fulfil deals to share power, a charge Maliki's backers dismiss, pointing to Sunnis in key posts.
"This will not complicate or destroy the political process," Saad al-Muttalibi, a leading member of Maliki's State of Law coalition, said of the death sentence on Hashemi. "We refuse to convert this into a political issue. This is a judicial issue."
Maliki has already shown himself to be a tough adversary.
A former Arabic teacher who worked his way up the ranks of the Shi'ite Islamist Dawa party, he has proved adept at playing Iraq's factions against one another, and juggling the tricky balance of the region's diplomacy.
After Hashemi fled the country earlier this year, Maliki survived a short-lived boycott of parliament and the cabinet by the Sunni-backed Iraqiya party, which ended up more fractured, eventually strengthening the Shi'ite leader's hand.
More recently, Maliki exploited splits in Kurdish and Sunni blocs to defeat an attempt by opponents to join forces with some of his Shi'ite allies to force a vote of no-confidence.
Although Iraq is much quieter than at the peak of violence in 2006-07, Sunday's attacks followed a pattern that has emerged since the U.S. troops withdrew at the end of last year: every three or four weeks bombers strike on a massive scale across the country, killing scores of people in coordinated attacks.
Iraq authorities quickly blamed Sunni insurgents seeking "sectarian pursuits and sedition" for Sunday's attacks that hit security forces and cafes and mosques in Shi'ite districts.
No group claimed responsibility, but Iraqi security forces are battling a lethal mix of Sunni Islamist fighters, including a local al Qaeda wing and former members of Saddam's Baath party, all determined to undermine the Shi'ite-led government.
While weakened by years of fighting the U.S. forces, al Qaeda's local wing, the Islamic State of Iraq, has begun to benefit from funds and morale as Sunni Islamists have been crossing into neighbouring Syria to fight.
"The terrorists may be trying to exacerbate any inter-communal tensions," said John Drake, a security analyst with AKE Group consultancy. "It doesn't show that the terrorists are in league with Hashemi, but it is very likely that they are trying to capitalise on the sectarian sensitivity of his case."
The insurgents aim to tap broader disaffection among Iraqis impatient with government failures to restore full security and even basic services like electricity, more than nine years after the U.S. invasion.
A larger question mark over the Iraq's longer-term stability may lie next door in Syria, where Sunnis are the majority and Sunni Islamists fighters are the core of the insurgency against Assad, whose Alawite minority is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam and whose family has long been an ally of Shi'ite Iran.
Maliki is also close to Iran, which like Syria gave him refuge after he fled persecution under Saddam, and he has resisted calls from Sunni Arab leaders to take a harder line against Assad.
Prime minister since 2006, Maliki has relied on Tehran's help to shore up domestic Shi'ite support behind him. Tehran and Damascus both backed his fragile new government after an inconclusive parliamentary election in 2010.
Syria is delicate matter for Maliki. Iraqi and Iranian Shi'ite leaders fear a collapse of Assad's government could splinter Syria along sectarian lines, and eventually lead to the rise of a hardline Sunni regime hostile to Baghdad.
When U.S. forces fought al-Qaeda and Sunni Islamists after the 2003 invasion, Iraqi leaders criticised Damascus for sheltering insurgents who slipped across the border. Baghdad worries former Baathists and other Sunni Islamists could again use Syria as a haven to strike at Iraq under a new regime.
Violence is already washing back from Syria into Iraq. Baghdad officials say Sunni Islamist fighters are crossing into Syria from Iraqi territory, and Syrian rockets hit the Iraqi border town of al-Qaim this week, killing a young girl.
Along the border, in Iraqi provinces that are a stronghold for Sunnis, many tribes share common ties and sympathies with their Syrian Sunni brethren over the frontier.
"Iraq will have a storm," said Sheikh Hatim Sulaiman, a chieftain of one of Anbar province's largest tribes. "In a few months Syria's crisis will likely end. And what comes next will be difficult for Iraq."