BAGHDAD Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's chances of being reappointed appear to be fading as potential coalition partners turn against him a month after a general election that produced no clear winner.
Maliki, a Shi'ite leader, claims credit for stamping out widespread violence between once dominant Sunnis and majority Shi'ites, but is viewed as a divisive strongman by his foes. His coalition finished a close second in the March 7 vote.
"Maliki did well in the election, but not well enough," said Toby Dodge, a reader in international politics at the University of London. "He thought he would be in a position of strength, but instead he faces a whole series of problems."
More than a month after the election, Iraq is still waiting for formal, final results. Lengthy government-forming talks loom, overshadowed by the threat of attacks from a stubborn Sunni Islamist insurgency that continues to kill dozens each month in suicide bombings and shootings.
A sharp rise in violence could threaten U.S. plans to end combat operations in August ahead of a full pullout by end-2011.
Analysts say Maliki has displayed a talent for alienating potential allies both at home and abroad, and stoked concerns that he could have authoritarian leanings. Those qualities are starting to haunt him as coalition talks unfold.
"Many people have feared that Maliki wanted to be a strongman," said Anthony Cordesman of the Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies.
Those suspicions have watered down support among minority Kurds, who have enjoyed virtual autonomy in Iraq's north for almost two decades, and among other Shi'ite factions which fear he could rein in their freedom of movement, or their militias.
Whether or not Maliki stays on as prime minister, analysts say oil deals crucial to Iraq's reconstruction will survive.
REVENGE OF THE MEHDI ARMY
A national election in December 2005, more than two years after the U.S.-led invasion to topple dictator Saddam Hussein, was followed by long talks on forming a government, during which Iraq's devastating sectarian war grew even more intense.
Four years later, Iraqi forces and U.S. troops have brought relative stability to most of the country.
As part of stabilization efforts, in 2008 Maliki sent troops to crush the Mehdi Army, the paramilitary force of anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. That move has come back to bite him.
Maliki's State of Law coalition got 89 seats in the election, two seats behind former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's cross-sectarian Iraqiya alliance. Another Shi'ite coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), won around 70 seats.
State of Law and INA have been holding talks on a coalition government that could have a majority in the 325-seat parliament. Sadrists gained around 40 of the INA's seats, giving Sadr the role of possible kingmaker.
Sadr has said his followers were dead set against Maliki.
"They have a veto against Maliki," he said in a rare interview on Qatar-based al-Jazeera on April 10. "They reject him. This is the will of the people and I have to carry it out."
Maliki has also managed to alienate many Kurds and has poor ties with neighboring Arab states. Shi'ite power Iran, whose backing was viewed as instrumental four years ago when Maliki was first appointed, is widely believed to think he has become too independent and uncontrollable for its tastes.
"Maliki's been isolated for some time and has bitten off more than he can chew," said Gala Riani, an analyst at IHS Global Insight.
"The other political parties don't want him back, Iran, Syria and the other Arab states don't want to see him back. And the Kurds don't want him back either."
State of Law spokesman Hachim al-Hasani dismissed as "media bubbles" reports it could propose a compromise candidate, saying Maliki remained the coalition's sole choice.
Maliki ally Ali al-Adeeb acknowledged, however, that: "All options are on the table."
Many analysts say Maliki is poorly placed for the job.
"I believe Maliki's chance to win the PM post has become very weak," said Yahya al-Kubaisy, a researcher at the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies. At this point, the prime minister is very likely "out of the game," he added.
Talks on a coalition will begin in earnest once the election results are certified. Electoral authorities said on Monday that could occur on Wednesday but was likely to be delayed.
Maliki's fate may affect the destiny of oilfield development contracts signed by incumbent Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani that could take oil production to around 12 million barrels per day from 2.5 million bpd now.
The allure of tens of billions of dollars in revenues means, however, that no one who takes his place is likely to rescind those valuable agreements.
"Whoever ends up in charge, they won't have time to mess around," IHS Global Insight's Riani said. "The country is stable enough now that bread and butter issues really count, so the government is going to have to start delivering basic services."
(Additional reporting by Aseel Kami and Ahmed Rasheed; Editing by Michael Christie and Jon Hemming)