The head of Iraq’s national intelligence and a former communications minister have emerged as most likely candidates for the prime minister’s post after President Barham Salih issued an ultimatum to parties.
Mohammed Allawi, the former communications minister, reportedly has the support of the Sairoon parliamentary bloc led by populist cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, the rival Fatah coalition led by militia leader Hadi Al Amiri, and former prime minister Haider Al Abadi.
But there are doubts as to whether Mr Allawi would accept the job because of the political pressures.
"He is a moderate political individual who is honest and I don't think he will accept the terms of the political class," Jaber Al Jaberi, a member of Parliament, told The National.
Mr Al Jaberi believes Mustafa Al Kadhimi, the National Intelligence Service chief, "will be the most accepted candidate by the political blocs".
An official close to Mr Allawi said the former minister also had the backing of Iran, an influential player in Iraqi politics.
"Iran wants him because he is weak," the official said. "That's why Mr Al Sadr and Mr Al Amiri have supported him."
But Mr Allawi’s possible candidature has angered Iraqis who are demanding sweeping political changes.
Protesters took to the streets on Wednesday night chanting "Mohammed Allawi is rejected" and the hashtag "Down with Mohammed Allawi" began trending on Twitter.
The official said Mr Allawi was "seen to have close ties to Iran".
President Salih on Wednesday gave political parties until Saturday to nominate a candidate for prime minister, or he would present a candidate of his own who “is most acceptable to the Parliament and people".
Local media reports are suggesting that Mr Salih will nominate Mr Al Kadhimi if the political blocs miss their deadline.
Mr Al Kadhimi’s nomination has reportedly gained the support of Mr Al Abadi, Mr Al Sadr and the cleric Ammar Al Hakim, head of the Al Hikma bloc in Parliament.
The Iraqi constitution gives the biggest parliamentary bloc the right to name a prime minister, but the legislature is divided over whether this means the largest coalition in Parliament or the winning list in 2018 elections.
Departing Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi resigned in November after Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, Iraq’s most influential religious figure, withdrew support for his government.
Mr Abdul Mahdi took the post with the backing of Sairoon and Fatah, the two largest groups in Parliament, but they have been unable to agree on his successor.
The delay has further enraged Iraqis, who have been staging anti-government protests since October.
Sparked by anger over corruption, endemic unemployment and poor public services, the protest movement is demanding sweeping changes to Iraq’s political system.
More than 460 people have been killed and more than 9,000 injured since the movement erupted, the UN said.
“A recent increase in the use of live ammunition by security forces, reported shootings by unidentified gunmen at protesters and the continued targeted killing of demonstrators and human rights defenders are alarming,” the UN envoy to Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, said on Thursday.
Ms Hennis-Plasschaert urged the government to step up its efforts to break the political deadlock.
“Many have sacrificed everything to have their voices heard," she said. "Solutions are urgently needed.
"Iraq cannot afford the ongoing violent oppression nor the political and economic paralysis."