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Maliki reworks image for elections

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki traveled to Anbar province, a visit that three years ago would have been considered a suicide mission into the cradle of the Sunni Arab resistance.

Now the Shiite Muslim leader, famously mistrustful of the sect that dominated Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s reign, was huddling with the head of the ruling Sunni coalition in Anbar, talking of the need to cut across sectarian lines in upcoming national elections.

Perhaps just as surprisingly, Maliki’s words were received favorably by tribesmen. “Prime Minister Nouri Maliki is patriotic and able to lead Iraq,” said provincial council member Arkan Khalaf Tarmouz, who attended the meeting two weeks ago. “It is possible to ally with him in a national coalition.”

Hours later on state television, the prime minister delivered a similar message, calling for an end to the divisions that have shaped the country since 2003. “Alliances based on national, ethnic and sectarian lines should end, and the substitute will be the ‘national coalition,’ ” Maliki said.

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The steps toward rapprochement have enormous implications: Although it is far from a sure thing, if new parties or alliances emerge that soften communal boundaries and play upon shared interests, Iraq could take a major step away from the bloodshed of recent years.

The new direction points to a general wish among Iraqis, weary after civil war and sectarian political battles, to limit religion’s role in public life. Maliki, who is to meet with President Obama in Washington on Wednesday, has regularly tapped such sentiment, scolding the religious and ethnic blocs in the government. Emboldened by his victory in January provincial elections, in which he ran candidates on the strength of Iraq’s security gains and mostly eschewed religious imagery, he has called for a way forward that will win the passage of key legislation, from an oil law to revisions of the constitution.

The difference in language of onetime political foes such as Maliki and lawmaker Saleh Mutlak, a former member of Hussein’s Baath Party, is at times minuscule. Across the political spectrum, groups are starting to use the nationalist language of the Hussein years -- without the baggage of the former dictator.

“People want rulers representing them as Iraqis, not according to their affiliations or sects. They want people to work for Iraq and Iraqis,” said political scientist Nabil Mohammed Salim, a professor at Baghdad University.

“It’s taken time to get here, after six years [of the Americans], and 10 to 13 years of embargo, and eight years of war [with Iran]. People want something real to make their lives better.”

Some call the prime minister’s plea for unity a pose. They charge that he is a deeply sectarian figure masquerading as a nationalist after alienating his old Shiite and Kurdish political partners, who vaulted him to his position in 2006. His critics believe he wants a monopoly on power, and some even see echoes of strongman Hussein in the current Iraqi leader.

Maliki has chosen allies among some Sunni leaders and groups, while blacklisting others. Commanders of paramilitary groups called Awakening Councils have been jailed while others have been granted protection by his office.

Crucial to Maliki’s ambitions for another term is whether he breaks away from the Shiite political coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, that has helped shape the country along religious lines since 2005.

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In the last two years, Maliki has feuded with his main partner in the coalition, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, over power. If Maliki feels his Shiite partners are working to marginalize him, he could decide to leave the coalition for good. So far, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council has held off on putting Maliki at the head of the alliance.

SIIC, more influential than Maliki in his early years as prime minister, has watched the Shiite leader eclipse the party in popularity. One politician involved in alliance negotiations said SIIC hoped to isolate Maliki and prevent him from getting a second term.

A Western advisor to the Iraqi government warned that Maliki was in a dilemma: He might be the most popular figure in the Iraqi government, but many factions are now aligned against him in parliament, resentful of his gradual accumulation of power.

The prime minister’s supporters worry that Iran could force Maliki to reenter the Shiite alliance on terms favorable to SIIC, which has enjoyed a close relationship with Tehran since the 1980s.

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Iran has played a king-making role in Iraqi Shiite politics since 2003 because of its ties to many Shiite lawmakers, who spent years in exile across the border.

“In the period of 2006 and 2007, there were moves to remove Maliki. It was Iran who stopped it. Maliki has to remember this. They can make his life harder,” said Sami Askari, a Shiite legislator and confidant of the prime minister.

Still, Askari warned that Maliki would not be hemmed in; he would set the conditions for any list of candidates he might join.

“Maliki will not accept to be marginalized. . . . Some may have ambitions to surround Maliki. I doubt they will succeed,” Askari said. “Everyone understands Maliki is an asset.”

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Mindful of the efforts to unseat him, Maliki has reached out to the Sunni community, including the man he met with in Anbar, Ahmed abu Risha, and Sheik Ahmad Abdul-Ghafoor Samarrai, who administers Sunni mosques around the country. He has even had a long-running discussion with onetime enemy Mutlak about an alliance.

Mutlak told The Times that an official from Maliki’s camp had said that if they joined forces, their groups could secure the votes in parliament to form a government. The post of prime minister would go to Maliki and the presidency to someone from Mutlak’s faction.

Such a partnership between Maliki, a longtime leader of the Shiite fundamentalist Islamic Dawa Party, and Mutlak, whose roots are in the secular Baath Party, would have been unthinkable, and remains a tough sell.

So far, Mutlak has held out. His suspicion of Maliki is a measure of how hard it remains to overcome the sectarian divide in Iraq. Mutlak said that in a discussion this summer with Maliki he had asked the prime minister how it was that he was suddenly in favor of a strong national government and opposed to a government based on sect.

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“He told me, ‘I’ve changed,’ ” Mutlak said, and then scoffed. “I think he doesn’t act on Earth the same way he talks.”

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ned.parker@latimes.com


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