BAGHDAD -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government suffered another defection yesterday, and Iraqi politicians and disillusioned citizens joined the debate about whether he should be replaced with a more secular leader.
Stepping forward to present himself as the ideal candidate, former Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi hired a powerhouse Washington law firm to promote him.
Meanwhile, this year's U.S. troop buildup has succeeded in bringing violence in Baghdad down from peak levels, but the death toll from sectarian attacks around the country is running nearly double the pace from a year ago.
Some of the recent bloodshed appears to be the result of militant fighters drifting into parts of northern Iraq, where they have fled after U.S.-led offensives. Baghdad, however, still accounts for slightly more than half of all war-related killings - the same percentage as a year ago, according to figures compiled by the Associated Press.
The sectarian violence that has helped drive Sunni Arabs and even some fellow Shiite factions to boycott the Cabinet continued to flare yesterday. A car bomb exploded in Baghdad's working-class Kadhimiya neighborhood shortly after noon, killing seven and wounding 30.
The blast occurred as Shiite faithful began assembling for an annual pilgrimage to Karbala, 70 miles southwest of Baghdad. More than a million pilgrims were expected.
In other violence yesterday, at least three civilians were assassinated in Kirkuk, said police. Later in the day, police said a U.S. missile landed in the city, killing two people and injuring four. Police said that the dead were civilians but that the attack had targeted insurgents.
Al-Maliki came in for criticism by President Bush and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker last week. Bush later backed away, calling al-Maliki "a good person who is facing many problems." But an assessment by U.S. intelligence agencies concluded in a report that he was unable to govern effectively and that Iraq's politics were likely to get even more precarious.
Several prominent members of Congress called for al-Maliki to step down, or for the U.S. to start withdrawing its troops soon.
Infighting and sectarian power struggles have prompted all Sunni and independent factions to pull out of the so-called national unity government. The former prime minister has given several high-profile television interviews and written op-ed pieces in which he has been highly critical of al-Maliki. Allawi also hired the Washington company of Barbour, Griffith & Rogers on a six-month lobbying contract for $300,000, according to papers filed with the U.S. Justice Department. The company includes Robert Blackwill, Bush's former envoy to Iraq, and Philip Zelikow, a former adviser to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Allawi was traveling outside of Iraq, but a member of parliament from his party, Iyad Jamaludin, said the recent buzz over his potential to replace al-Maliki reflected Iraqi desires to "move away from sectarianism."
"Time has shown that our policies are the right way to lead Iraq and rescue it from the current crisis," said Jamaludin.
According to compiled statistics, Iraq is suffering about double the number of war-related deaths throughout the country compared with last year - an average daily toll of 33 in 2006, and 62 so far this year.
Nearly 1,000 more people have been killed in violence across Iraq in the first eight months of this year than in all of 2006. So far this year, about 14,800 people have died in war-related attacks and sectarian murders. AP reporting accounted for 13,811 deaths in 2006. The United Nations and other sources placed the 2006 toll far higher.
According to the Iraqi Red Crescent Organization, the number of displaced Iraqis has more than doubled since the start of the year, from 447,337 on Jan. 1 to 1.14 million on July 31.
Carol J. Williams writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.