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Maliki's hold on power uncertain

The prime minister is widely popular among Iraqis but disliked by many fellow politicians, leaving the nation's leadership structure up for grabs as election day approaches.

March 02, 2010|By Liz Sly
  • Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, his image enlarged on a poster, waves to the crowd at a rally in Najaf. His crackdown on militias and his Arab nationalist rhetoric have alienated many politicians.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, his image enlarged on a poster, waves… (Qassem Zein / AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Baghdad — Since taking office in 2006, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has defied expectations, proving to be a canny and often bold leader who has transformed himself from a virtual unknown into possibly the single most popular politician in Iraq.

Yet in the process, he has alienated most of Iraq's other political leaders, to the extent that he is going to have a tough time holding on to his job after Sunday's elections, in which Iraqis will vote for a new parliament that will in turn choose a new government.

It is a crucial election. Whatever government emerges from the polls will determine Iraq's future beyond the scheduled final departure of U.S. troops in 2011 -- and should the election not go well, there is a chance the U.S. military would seek to delay the withdrawal of combat troops due to take place by August.

It is also an election whose result is almost impossible to predict, with the eventual outcome likely to be decided not so much by voters as by the alliances that are struck after the ballots are counted.

And that's how Maliki could fail, even if his political slate succeeds in winning more seats than any other. Opinion polls here are notoriously unreliable, but they tend to back up the conclusion of last year's provincial elections that Maliki is still more popular than any other politician in Iraq, with most of his support among the Shiite majority.

He is widely credited with the security gains that have brought a measure of normalcy to much of the country after the vicious sectarian war between Shiite and Sunni Arabs triggered by the 2006 election. But the fragmentation of Iraq's political landscape is such that no one slate can possibly hope to win a majority.

The unified Shiite bloc that swept the vote in the last election has split into two camps: Maliki's State of Law coalition, which has attempted to portray itself as nonsectarian, and the more religiously inclined Iraqi National Alliance.

The Iraqiya bloc headed by secular Shiite Iyad Allawi, who was the U.S.'s choice to lead the first postoccupation Iraqi government, is the favorite to pick up the Sunni Arab and secularist vote, but it will face competition from the Sunni religious Iraqi Accordance and the Iraq Unity Alliance, a new coalition headed by Shiite Interior Minister Jawad Bolani and Sunni Awakening leader Ahmed abu Risha. Even the main Kurdish Alliance that emerged as the kingmaker in the last parliament is confronting a challenge from the breakaway Kurdish Goran, or Change Party.

Perhaps the only issue on which these disparate groups agree is their desire to replace Maliki as prime minister, said Mowaffak Rubaie, Maliki's former national security advisor who is running as a candidate with the rival Shiite alliance.

"Anti-Maliki-ism will unite us," he said of the various parties, all likely to win seats. "There is a lot of strong opposition to Maliki personally."

Maliki's defenders say it is precisely the qualities that have alienated the political elite that have made him popular on the streets. By ordering the Iraqi army to take on Shiite militias in 2008, a move that cemented his stature among ordinary people, he alienated the powerful Sadrist movement. His Arab nationalist rhetoric also appeals to many ordinary Iraqis, but has offended his onetime Kurdish allies.

In seeming to act alone, without consulting partners in his coalition government, he has demonstrated qualities of decisiveness and leadership that the fragmented nation needs, said Haidar Nazar, a political analyst in the southern town of Najaf.

"Everyone in Iraq wants to be in charge, and to stop the others. But Maliki understood that game, and started to make decisions by himself," he said. "The majority of our politicians do not possess the character of Maliki."

His detractors describe him otherwise. Kurdish leaders have compared him to Saddam Hussein, whose Sunni-dominated regime ruled with an iron fist until he was toppled in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Sunnis remain deeply suspicious of Maliki's nonsectarian credentials, and point to his government's role in widespread arrests of Sunnis, while many Shiites decry what they see as his attempts to consolidate power in his own hands.

"Maliki is a little dictator," said Mithal Alusi, an independent Sunni candidate. "He would like to be a big dictator, but he's not powerful enough."

Maliki's failure to attract significant Sunni or Kurdish figures to his alliance foreshadows the difficulty he would face in forming a coalition government. Those who know him describe him as difficult to deal with, quick-tempered and deeply suspicious of others, the latter a trait that dates back to his days as an exile in opposition to Hussein.

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