In the wake of the U.S. military pullout from Iraq, a political crisis threatens to ignite a fresh sectarian conflict. Regional tension between Shi'ite powerhouse Iran and Sunni archrival Saudi Arabia also threatens to worsen the sectarian divide in the Middle East.
In a region hit by multiple crises and growing instability, the latest Iraqi political divide comes as Shi'ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has attempted to arrest his Sunni vice president and dismiss a Sunni deputy prime minister.
That has led to an outpouring of warnings from Iraq's rival Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish leaders. Iyad Allawi, the leader of the main, Sunni-backed Iraqiya party demanded that Mr. Maliki be replaced:
"Democracy is now falling apart in the country, and as the political process is facing a lot of hurdles, as we can see, then we need to have somebody who would interact with others, who would manage the country until the next elections, and we want to suggest to the national alliance to find an alternative for Mr. Maliki," Allawi said.
Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi has fled to the autonomous region of Kurdistan in northern Iraq, where regional President Massoud Barzani gave him refuge. Barzani urged Iraqi leaders to go to the negotiating table and compromise:
He says the crisis threatens the country's power-sharing and warns that it could provoke the collapse of the political process.
[Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told VOA's Persian News Network Thursday the crisis needs to be resolved "as soon as possible" because it could "adversely impact the security situation." He said the government is trying to "tone down the rhetoric" on the issue.]
Iraq analyst Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group says that after nearly a decade in Iraq, the U.S. pullout has left Iraq in disarray.
"The U.S. is leaving behind a country with too many loose ends. Nothing is really being locked in, in terms of the power-sharing agreement, the constitution is still much debated, the relationship between the capital and the governorates is still a work in progress, and the Kurdish issue remains unsettled," Harling said.
Some Iraq analysts, however, caution that it's too quick to jump to conclusions. James Denselow of King's College London argues that Iraq's latest crisis is just another facet of the political process:
"It's a Lebanese-like system in which consensus politics will reign, and without that level of consensus violence will occur outside the political system that's not strong enough nor institutionalized enough to handle that kind of level of disagreement. So, Maliki is making a move for power and looking to isolate people who he feels have undermined his power base," said Denselow. "But, the key is whether it will remain court politics or whether it will sort of fan out and become a wider, national problem."
London-based Iran analyst Mehrdad Khonsari says the Iraq tensions are reflected more broadly in the Middle East where rivalries between Sunni and Shi'ite interests are being played out in Lebanon, Syria, the Palestinian territories and Bahrain.
"Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in a cold war that has now become much more apparent in the last several months. They are competing for influence in Iraq and Syria in an open way," said Khonsari.
Iraqis, meanwhile, are watching to see whether the Sunni-Shi'ite political tensions will flare into a more violent divide.