Prime Minister Nouri Maliki broke ranks Monday with the Shiite Muslim coalition that propelled him to power in 2006 and appears set to contest January's national elections on his own, opening the door to a new, uncertain era in Iraqi politics.
Maliki was conspicuously absent from a gathering of Shiite leaders launching the Iraqi National Alliance, a revamped version of the coalition that easily won the elections in 2005 and is hoping to garner a majority of Shiite votes in January.
The door is still open for Maliki to rejoin the coalition should he change his mind, several Shiite leaders at the launch said. But aides to Maliki said he has calculated that he stands a better chance of holding on to the post of prime minister by running alone on his record than with Shiite partners who he believes have been widely discredited in the eyes of many Iraqis.
"If he runs alone, he feels he will have more success," said Shiite legislator Sami Askari, who is close to Maliki. "It is now certain."
The creation in 2004 of the United Iraqi Alliance, an umbrella grouping of the major Shiite factions, helped ensure that the Shiite majority voted as a bloc in 2005. The move guaranteed victory, but also cemented, many Iraqis believe, the sectarian divide between Shiites and Sunnis that caused so much bloodshed in the ensuing years.
Many of the major players from 2004 were present at the announcement of the Iraqi National Alliance, including leaders from the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and the supporters of Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr.
The absence of Maliki and his Islamic Dawa Party means the Shiite vote could split this time, leaving the outcome of the election uncertain. It may also give the Sunni Arab and ethnic Kurdish minorities greater leverage in shaping the next government.
Maliki intends, his aides say, to form his own bloc that will cross sectarian lines to present a secularist, nationalist platform. In so doing, he is hoping to duplicate the success in January's provincial elections of his State of Law coalition, which managed to get the most votes, though not a majority, across the Shiite south and in Baghdad.
It's a risky gamble. Maliki still appears to command strong support on the streets, where he is widely admired by Shiites and even some Sunnis as the architect of the security gains over the last two years. Even after the bombings Wednesday at the foreign and finance ministries and other sites in Baghdad that killed 95 people, several Shiites interviewed in the city said their support for Maliki had not wavered.
"There is some negligence on the part of the security services, but it's not Maliki's fault. He did a lot of good things for Iraq," said toy store worker Shihab Malek, 22, who lost a cousin and a close friend in the blast at the Foreign Ministry.
Whether support for Maliki will hold up if violence continues to escalate, as many politicians have predicted it will, is in question, however. On Monday, 11 people were killed in explosions on two minibuses in the southern Shiite town of Kut.
In addition, Maliki has so far been unable to sway any significant Sunni or Kurdish factions to join his prospective coalition.
But even if the prime minister loses support in the coming months, political analyst Nabil Salim of Baghdad University believes, few Shiites will vote again for the Shiite coalition so closely associated in their minds with the failures of the post-Saddam Hussein era. The list of candidates who introduced themselves at the launch of the new alliance read like a Who's Who of politicians discredited by the setbacks of recent years.
Among them was former Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, whose term in 2005 was considered so disastrous that Sunnis and Kurds teamed up, with American support, to prevent him from being appointed again in 2006, even though he was the chosen candidate of the Shiite alliance.
Also there were Vice President Adel Abdul Mehdi of the Supreme Council, whose reputation has been tarnished by a major bank robbery last month allegedly carried out by his bodyguards, although he is not suspected, and Ahmad Chalabi, renowned for his role in advocating the U.S.-led invasion with his reports, found to be false, concerning Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction.
Many of the others were leading clerics, wearing the traditional robes and turbans now derided by many Iraqis who lament the introduction of religion into their nation's politics.
Absent was Abdelaziz Hakim, the powerful Shiite cleric who heads the Supreme Council and was leader of the alliance in the last elections. He is reportedly gravely ill with lung cancer and is being treated at a Tehran hospital; his death could plunge the group into a bruising leadership struggle.
Whether Sadr's backers can help the coalition's prospects is unclear. The coalition can count on support from Sadr's loyalists, but their presence on the ticket will also alienate many ordinary Shiites who deeply resented the thuggish tactics of the cleric's Mahdi Army militia during its rule over Shiite neighborhoods a few years ago.
The alliance "has got a new name, but it's the same faces and probably the same program," said Salim, the analyst. "The election is wide open. Anything could happen."
Ahmed is a Times staff writer.