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BAGHDAD, Iraq - Major partners in Iraq's governing coalition are in behind-the-scenes talks to oust Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki amid discontent over his failure to quell raging violence, according to lawmakers involved.

The talks are aimed at forming a new parliamentary bloc that would seek to replace the current government and that would likely exclude supporters of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is a vehement opponent of the U.S. military presence.

The new alliance would be led by senior Shiite politician Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, who met with President Bush last week. Al-Hakim, however, was not expected to be the next prime minister because he prefers the role of powerbroker, staying above the grinding day-to-day running of the country.

Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim spoke with the Washington Post during his D.C. visit last week:

"We have strong insistence to have strong relations with both the U.S. and Iran. We do have strong relations with Iran. Iran stood beside the Iraqi people for a quarter of a century, stood beside the Shiites, the Sunnis, the Kurds and even the Christians and whoever went there, they opened their doors and they supported the groups. This is why such behavior or positions could not be forgotten. The United States is a great country; they are also present in Iraq. We are demanding a real partnership and understanding and strong relations for the interests of the Iraqis."

Two leading Sunni members of Iraq's government were blunt in their criticism of Al-Maliki:

The top two Sunni Arab members of Iraq's Shiite-led government painted a dire picture Tuesday of conditions in Iraq, with one saying the government was to blame for the country's "chaos" and the other saying Iraq was worse off than Lebanon during its civil war.

The grim assessments by parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani and Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi came on a day when the unity of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's ruling coalition was dealt a fresh blow by followers of a radical Shiite cleric making good on their threat to boycott parliament.

..."There is a vacuum of authority resulting from the government's weakness and its inability to exercise its legitimate powers," said al-Mashhadani, the speaker, said in a prepared statement unusually harsh in its criticism of al-Maliki's government.

(Updates to follow...)

Originally posted to Rob Cole on Sun Dec 10, 2006 at 07:19 PM PST.

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