BAGHDAD — As Iraqis awoke Sunday to the news that American forces had finally and completely left their country after nearly nine tumultuous years, their feelings of relief were chilled by an unmistakable sense of menace.
A deepening political crisis that pits the country's Shiite prime minister against some of his most outspoken Sunni coalition partners is raising fears that a brewing conflict could plunge the country into a new era of instability.
The crisis flared after the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki leaked plans Saturday to arrest a Sunni official, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, on charges of terrorism. Hashimi's mostly Sunni Iraqiya bloc responded by announcing a boycott of the national parliament.
Frantic telephone calls involving President Jalal Talabani, Maliki, Sunni politicians and U.S. Embassy officials appeared to resolve the issue. A judicial committee was formed to "thoroughly investigate" the terrorism charges, a solution that seemed to allow time for negotiations to unfold.
But Sunday, tensions soared again when Maliki asked parliament to hold a no-confidence vote that would enable him to dismiss another top Sunni official, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak.
Mutlak said he is certain that the move springs from comments he made in a CNN interview last week calling Maliki the "biggest dictator ever." He said that he stands by the comment and that the boycott will be upheld until Maliki takes steps to fully share power with his Sunni partners in Iraq's coalition government.
Hashimi and Mutlak flew to the northern region of Kurdistan on Sunday night, ostensibly to seek the intervention of Kurdish leaders but fueling speculation that they were seeking refuge.
While similar disputes have erupted in the past, only to be smoothed over by lengthy negotiations, this one seemed in the minds of many ordinary Iraqis to acquire ominous overtones after the departure of the Americans.
There have been more soldiers and armored vehicles on the streets of Baghdad in recent days, they say. Tanks have been deployed outside the homes of Hashimi, Mutlak and a third Sunni politician, their guns pointed toward their gates. A convoy of trucks laden with ammunition queued for access to the fortified Green Zone on Sunday, adding to the jittery mood.
The crisis is dividing Iraq along sectarian lines, threatening a revival of the tensions that erupted in widespread bloodletting in the middle of the past decade. Sunnis detect a plot by Maliki to crush his rivals and cement his authority now that U.S. forces have departed. Shiites think that Hashimi and other Sunni politicians may be behind some of the acts of terrorism that have abated but not disappeared from Baghdad's streets.
"I think there's going to be a coup," said Muwafak Mohammed Ali, 47, voicing one of the many theories swirling as the long-simmering feuds among politicians erupted into full view even before the last convoy of American troops crossed the border into Kuwait on Sunday morning. He wasn't sure by whom.
"This is Iraq. It is what happens," said Ali, a wedding musician who lives near the Green Zone. "It will be by the military or one of the political parties."
"I don't think the Americans should have gone," he added. "The situation isn't stable."