Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki said on Sunday that he would meet as early as this week with leaders from all the major political parties in the hopes of forging a grand compromise among the warring factions.
But to the various groups who have pulled ministers from his Cabinet, al-Maliki also issued a threat: Do not expect your jobs back or your demands met until you give us something in return. Or prepare to be replaced.
"We hope to end this crisis and that the ministers will return to their ministries," al-Maliki said at a news conference. "But if that doesn't happen, we will go to our other brothers who are offering their help and we will choose ministers from among them."
Some Western officials viewed al-Maliki's announcement as the product of a last-ditch US effort to draw drops of national reconciliation from what most now consider a very dry well. The goal, the officials said -- demanding anonymity to avoid being singled out in case the plan failed -- is to deliver to Congress evidence of momentum by next month, when a status report on the expanded US military presence in Iraq is due.
The move to push leaders of warring sects together comes at a time of profound political tension in Baghdad.
Accusing the Shiite-led Maliki government of sectarianism and incompetence, 11 Cabinet ministers have boycotted his government in recent weeks -- six from the main Sunni bloc, the Iraqi Consensus Front, and five from a group of mixed sects loyal to former prime minister Ayad Allawi.
Six other Cabinet positions once occupied by members of the party loyal to the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr also remain empty because parliament has not approved replacements, meaning that roughly half of the government's ministries lack leaders who work with the prime minister's office.
Parliament also recently resisted al-Maliki's demands to stay in session, and took this month off.
Many US officials in Iraq have grown so frustrated with the government's lack of progress that they have publicly focused their hopes almost exclusively on the individual provinces, as US President George W. Bush did in a news conference last week.
The prospects for al-Maliki's meeting, however, are hard to divine. Sunni leaders from the Iraqi Consensus Front have said they would sit around the table with al-Maliki. Even if the summit meeting ends only with an announcement of future meetings, some Western officials said, it would likely qualify as progress by the US' lowered standards.
There are signs that al-Maliki's threat to replace ministers could be potent; because there was minimal Sunni participation in the 2005 elections, Sunni leaders have been tagged as unrepresentative of their communities.
One Western official who works closely with Iraqi politicians said that even before the prime minister's threat on Sunday, elected Sunni leaders worried that they could be pushed out by leaders from the Anbar Salvation Council and other Sunni-Arab tribal groups who have recently allied with the US military in its fight against Sunni extremists.
But there are few signs that any of Iraq's factions will ultimately be willing to compromise.
Sunni officials say that even if deals emerge from the meeting, they could not trust the government to implement them. Promises to deliver government services in Sunni areas of Baghdad still remain largely unfulfilled.