BAGHDAD Iraq's political crisis shows no sign of easing a month after the Shi'ite-led government sought the arrest of a Sunni vice president, triggering fears that Iraq, without the buffer of U.S. troops, could return to sectarian conflict.
Accused of running death squads, Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi is holed up in Iraqi Kurdistan as a guest of Iraq's Kurdish president. The government of the semi-autonomous region has not responded to requests from Baghdad to hand him over.
The move against Hashemi, and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's attempt to fire his Sunni deputy, Saleh al-Mutlaq, prompted a boycott of parliament and cabinet by the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc.
This has put stress on the fragile coalition of Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish parties forming Maliki's power-sharing government.
Some of the worst militant attacks against Shi'ites in the past year followed quickly on the heels of the political crisis, which threatens to unravel Iraq's hard-won coalition government and to worsen the country's sectarian divide.
Here are some possible scenarios.
MALIKI STAYS HIS COURSE
Hashemi, accused of running death squads, has demanded his trial be held not in Baghdad, where Maliki's control runs deep, but in the northern oil city of Kirkuk, officially in the central government's hands but where the Kurds have influence.
Kurdish officials appear to be backing his demand. Maliki said Hashemi must be tried in the capital. A court panel has rejected Hashemi's bid to move the case.
With no sign of a quick resolution on Hashemi, Maliki's Shi'ite-led government appears poised to take advantage of obvious rifts in Iraqiya.
The political blocs are working out details of a conference to help sort out the political turmoil but it may not happen this month. The conference, some politicians say, could ease tensions and allow Sunni lawmakers to save face and go back to their jobs, ending the boycott.
In Sunni-majority Salahuddin province a bid to win more autonomy from Baghdad is gaining steam, although a quick resolution is unlikely. Petitions have been distributed, a constitutionally necessary step toward a referendum on greater self-rule.
Maliki's Shi'ite allies are trying to take advantage of the turmoil to win government jobs, power within ministries and provincial councils and the release of prisoners.
Kurdistan may use the presence of Hashemi and support for Maliki as bargaining chips to win concessions in its ongoing disputes with Baghdad over oil and land rights and the region's share of the national budget.
The government's moves could increase feelings of political isolation among Sunnis, leading to attacks by insurgent groups including al Qaeda.
While some analysts and politicians believe the current problems could lead to Iraq's separation into Sunni, Kurdish and Shi'ite regions in the long-term, the near-term result could be a consolidation of national power by majority Shi'ites.
The government's moves against Hashemi and Mutlaq have put strains on the Iraqiya bloc, a loose cross-sectarian alignment that has long been in danger of crumbling.
Not all members are observing the parliamentary and cabinet boycotts. Three ministers attended cabinet this week.
Iraqiya's attempts to rally support in parliament for a "no confidence" vote against Maliki have gone nowhere. Potential replacements for the premier have little support.
Iraqiya won 91 seats in the March 2010 election but two groups of lawmakers have split -- one a group of 11 Shi'ites and secular Sunnis who call themselves "White Iraqiya" and the second an alliance of six secular Sunnis. A third group of 14 may join them.
The bloc decided at a meeting on Wednesday to continue the boycott. But Iraqiya leader Iyad Allawi suggested Maliki should be replaced or early elections should be held if the national conference fails to make peace.
If Iraqiya disintegrates completely, Maliki may get what he appears to want -- a majority government with the help of the Kurds -- without further moves against the Sunni-backed bloc.
But the inclusion of Iraqiya in the coalition government was considered a key to preventing sectarian tensions, and its exclusion could exacerbate Sunni fears.
Since the departure of the last U.S. troops on December 18 and the start of the political crisis, Iraq has seen some of its worst attacks in the past year.
On December 22, more than 10 coordinated bombings in mainly Shi'ite areas of the capital killed 73 people and wounded 200.
On Saturday, a suicide bomber killed more than 50 people and wounded 130 as Shi'ite pilgrims moved through a security checkpoint in the southern oil hub Basra.
Many of the recent attacks bore the marks of al Qaeda's Iraqi affiliate, which may be flexing its muscle amid political turmoil. U.S. and Iraqi security officials say the group has been severely degraded in recent years but it still has the punch to carry out some large-scale attacks.
The Shi'ite militia Asaib al-Haq, one of the main players on the Iraq battlefield in recent years, has announced it will lay down arms and join politics as an opposition faction.
But the announcement itself apparently stirred the anger of anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose political movement is an important but wary ally of Maliki in parliament. Sadr denounced Asaib as "killers" who had no place in politics.
Security officials have warned of tensions and the potential for violence between Sadrists and Asaib al-Haq in the streets, where Sadr has legions of devoted young followers.
A reinvigorated Sunni insurgency, conflict between Shi'ite militias and meddling by neighbors as part of a wider regional realignment of Sunni and Shi'ite power could spark renewed violence in Iraq, where the rebuilt security forces are still learning to cope without the presence of U.S. troops.
(Writing by Jim Loney)