My colleague Eric Martin and I have had an ongoing discussion about when Grand Ayatollah Sistani's ability to keep the various Shiite factions together in some kind of political coalition would finally break down.
It appears that moment has come - following on the recent removal of their ministers from Maliki's cabinet, the Sadr bloc has just announced that they are removing their members of parliament from the pro-government coalition too.
The move leaves Maliki's coalition in a precarious position with around half the seats in the 275-seat parliament, although it could survive with the support of a handful of independent lawmakers.The choice of Sistani's hometown for the announcement is probably significant. I believe that an attempt at securing a vote of no confidence against Maliki in the Iraqi parliament cannot now be far away. What happens then?
"The political committee has declared the withdrawal of the Sadr bloc from the (Shi'ite) alliance because there was no visible indication that the demands of Sadr's bloc were being met," the movement said in a statement released at a news conference in the holy Shi'ite city of Najaf.
There have been signs that Maliki would attempt to ignore such a vote if he lost it, which would require the U.S. to decide whether it would support Maliki or parliament. Either way, half of the Shiite majority will be pissed. However, if Maliki loses and does steps down, the U.S. is very likely to be faced by an Iraqi government which is very much more nationalist in leaning and which might refuse to extend the UN mandate for the coalition's occupation which is due for renewal in December. Finally, if Maliki wins a vote of no confidence, a continued US presence is assured but it is highly unlikely that deep divisions in Iraqi politics will deliver anything like progress towards benchmarks or any other kind of political reconcilliation. There are no "good" scenarios.