PHILADELPHIA -- The young grandson of a friend of mine was kidnapped two weeks ago in Baghdad on the way home from school. After several harrowing days, the boy was returned following payment of a hefty ransom. The family fled Baghdad.
In the power vacuum that has followed December's elections, such criminality has become commonplace in Baghdad, along with the bombs and sectarian murders that dominate headlines. Nearly four months after the vote, Iraq's politicians are unable to agree on a prime minister or form a government, leaving the country adrift.
This crisis must be resolved soon, or Iraq will come apart.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw rushed to Baghdad last weekend to urge Iraqis to choose a prime minister who can pull the country together. But their ineffectual visit showed that U.S. officials no longer can control Iraq's political life.
No doubt their trip was made out of desperation. As Iraqi politicians quarrel, the capital slips further into low-grade civil war and its people lose faith in their leaders.
The paralysis in Baghdad reflects the country's fragmentation since Saddam Hussein fell.
The choice of a prime minister was never supposed to be a problem. According to Iraq's new constitution, that choice rests with the largest bloc in the new assembly: the United Iraqi Alliance, a collection of Shiite parties.
The hard part was supposed to be the formation of a government of national unity in which the Shiite majority would share power with the minority Sunnis. The hope was that if Sunni politicians got a share of the political pie, they would reject the Baathist die-hards at the core of the insurgency.
But there can be no government of national unity until a prime minister is chosen. The furious political fight over that office threatens the future of the country.
The problem revolves around the current prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a doctor who spent years of exile in London and Tehran. Few expected the Shiite bloc to renominate Mr. al-Jaafari as their candidate for a four-year term. His one-year interim tenure is widely judged a failure. Mr. al-Jaafari has alienated Kurds by failing to consult on key issues such as the future of the contested Arab-Kurdish city of Kirkuk. He has alienated Sunnis by failing to stop Interior Ministry death squads from targeting their civilians.
But the Shiite bloc picked Mr. al-Jaafari - by one vote.
Some Shiite leaders claim this narrow margin was achieved by threats against independent members of the bloc. Those threats came, they say, from followers of Mr. al-Jaafari's most important political backer, the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Mr. al-Sadr commands a militia, known as the Mahdi Army, made up of lumpen poor from Shiite slums.
Mr. al-Sadr's kingmaker status also disturbs the leaders of the largest Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Republic in Iraq, or SCIRI. Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of SCIRI, comes from an illustrious family of clerics who were always rivals of Mr. al-Sadr's family of religious leaders. Mr. al-Hakim would like the prime ministerial choice to come from SCIRI - for example, the talented Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi.
One way to break the stalemate would be for Mr. al-Hakim to split the Shiite alliance and join Kurds, Sunnis and independents in opposing Mr. al-Jaafari.
But Shiites have struggled for decades to exert majority power, and Mr. al-Hakim is reluctant to split their dominant bloc. Nor is it clear whether he would receive support from the top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who wants to keep Shiites united to preserve their power.
So Iraq - and the White House - wait to see if Mr. al-Hakim will move to unseat Mr. al-Jaafari and whether Mr. al-Sistani will agree. These are not moves that Ms. Rice can control. But they will determine whether Iraq gets a government and the chance to survive in one piece.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is email@example.com.