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.

This kind of lawlessness, has escalated in the power vacuum that followed December’s elections. Nearly four months after the vote, Iraq’s politicians have been unable to agree on a prime minister or to form a government. This crisis must be resolved soon, or the country will come apart.

Condi and Jack – as the media call the traveling team of Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw – rushed to Baghdad recently, to urge Iraqis to choose a prime minister who can pull the country together. But their ineffectual visit showed that U.S. officials can no longer control Iraq’s political life.

No doubt Rice and Straw made their trip 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 diehards 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 Jaafari as their candidate for a four-year term. His one-year interim tenure is widely judged a failure.

Al-Jaafari has deeply 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 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 al-Jaafari’s most important political backer, the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Al-Sadr commands a militia, known as the Mahdi Army, made up of lumpen poor from Shiite slums.

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 al-Sadr’s family of religious leaders. Hakim would like the prime ministerial choice to come from SCIRI – for example, the talented Vice President Adel Abdel Mahdi.

So half the Shiite bloc opposes al-Jaafari. So do the Kurds, the Sunnis and many independents, adding up to about two-thirds of the elected assembly. Leading Shiite parliamentarians have called for al-Jaafari to step aside. These voices include another potential prime minister, the independent Kassim Daoud.

Yet al-Jaafari refuses to budge. I have interviewed him several times and doubt he will. He believes he was chosen to serve by God and by a democratic political process. The Rice-Straw visit also enables him to say he is standing up to American pressure.

Meantime, Iraq remains paralyzed. One way to break the stalemate would be for SCIRI’s Hakim to split the Shiite alliance, and join Kurds, Sunnis and independents in opposing al-Jaafari.

But Shiites have struggled for decades to exert majority power, and 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 Hakim will move to unseat al-Jaafari and whether al-Sistani will agree. These are not moves that 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 and editorial-board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer.