There’s a rumor going around that Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is feeling his oats, flexing his muscle, and displaying a newfound confidence that has allowed him to challenge the American occupation of Iraq. As a result, or so the story goes, Maliki has suspended talks with the United States on a long-term security agreement, and he has spoken out in favor of a timetable for withdrawing US forces.

But that’s mostly wrong. From the start of his reign as prime minister in 2006, Maliki has been a weak and ineffectual leader. His political base is exceedingly narrow, and his Dawa Party is virtually nonexistent as a political force in Iraq today. (Dawa — which means “The Call,” as in Islamic proselytizing, has always been a thin part of the ruling alliance, and it recently splintered, when former Prime Minister Jaafari and his faction withdrew from it.) Maliki’s power rests on a shaky coalition of other Iraqi parties, including the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), a militia-based party closely tied to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

Maliki has tried to strengthen his hand by bringing the religious Sunni bloc back into the ruling coalition. But the party that represents the religious Sunnis, whose core is the Iraqi Islamic Party, won’t help Maliki. The IIP, a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood secret society, was elected in 2005-2006 to its provincial posts and its parliamentary slots only because it was the sole Sunni party that would take part in an election that was widely boycotted by Sunni Arabs. (Only about two percent of Sunni Arabs voted.) So the idea that IIP has any political power is absurd. Most Sunni Iraqs are secular or moderately religious, and they reject the fundamentalist views of the IIP. The IIP is facing a determined (and armed) force arrayed against it amongst the Sunni “Awakening” or sahwa, also known as the “Sons of Iraq.” Either through political means (i.e., the upcoming provincial elections) or by armed force, the Sons of Iraq movement will likely obliterate the IIP fairly soon.

Maliki is trying to balance between his support from the United States, which is arming and training the Iraqi security forces (army and police), and his support from Iran, which has vast political, economic, and covert military influence inside Iraq. Both Maliki and ISCI want to maintain US support for the army and police, which have grown astronomically, from 337,000 in 2007 to 556,000 in 2008. So they can’t afford to alienate Washington. At the same time Maliki and ISCI are responding to strong pressure from Iran, which wants the Americans out of Iraq, and from Iraqi nationalists, who feel the same way. (Of course, the nationalists also want Iran to get out of Iraq.) That’s not a formula for political strength.

As a result Maliki and his cronies, who were installed in Baghdad with the dual support of Washington and Tehran, are suggesting that it’s time to set a timetable for a US withdrawal, and it now looks as if the US-Iraq security agreement is a dead letter. “There is a large possibility of postponing the signing of the long-term agreement between Iraq and the U.S., until a new U.S. administration is elected,” Ali al-Dabbagh was quoted as saying by the Voice of Iraq news agency.

The talk of Maliki the Strongman started with his assault on Basra two months ago. But Maliki is hardly a strong man. He’s facing heavy Iranian pressure, the threat of a coup d’etat by army officers opposed to him, and bitter opposition from a wide range of both Sunni and Shia nationalists, including Muqtada al-Sadr’s forces.

Stephen Biddle, an adviser to General Petraeus, says that US government officials are buzzing about the possibility of a coup by the army against Maliki. “It’s something that’s being talked about,” said Biddle, an Iraq watcher at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. Only the presence of US occupation forces in Iraq is restraining the Iraqi army from getting rid of Maliki, he suggested. “If we were to leave you could easily imagine a situation in which the military as the most effective institution in society decides to take over,” Biddle said. “The parliament is the least respected institution in the society.”

Meanwhile, nationalist resistance is brewing. At a conference in Damascus last week, Sunni and Shiite groups opposed to Maliki and to the US occupation of Iraq held forth. “It’s obvious they’ve just come to take our resources and to spread their influence,” said Shamil Rassam, chairman of the Iraqi Popular Forces, an anti-occupation group with offices in Syria, speaking of the Americans. “We reject any kind of agreement that prolongs the occupation for so much as a day.” Said a Sadrist at the meeting in Syria: “Maliki is an agent for the Americans and the occupation. He and his government are only there because of the Americans and if the Americans left they know they would be kicked out of office.”

Some strongman! Maliki’s allies are all weak. The Dawa party is falling apart, ISCI is widely reviled by Shiite Iraqis who detest its pro-Iranian stands, and the Iraqi Islamic Party has no support whatsoever among Iraqi Sunnis. The Kurds continue to prop up Maliki’s government, but they are not powerful outside their northern enclave, and they are facing strong opposition from both Iran and Turkey.