Maliki’s hold on power uncertain

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.

“He’s paranoid about plots and it’s not a delusion, because everyone is trying to get rid of him,” said a Western diplomat in Baghdad who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It contributes to an atmosphere where you don’t trust others and therefore it’s hard to build relationships of trust.”

If not Maliki, then who? That’s something no one seems prepared to predict. Potential candidates include Adel Abdul Mehdi, a longtime American favorite from the Shiite alliance; former Prime Minister Allawi; and even perhaps Ahmad Chalabi, the mercurial onetime Pentagon protege who hopes to emerge as a compromise candidate.

Given the fierce political rivalries, it is possible the factions will settle on a complete unknown -- in the same way Maliki was plucked from relative obscurity to head the last government after the chosen Shiite nominee from his party, former Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, was essentially vetoed by the Kurds and U.S.

Just as likely is a deadlock, something that Kenneth Pollack, director of the Saban Center at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, calls the “four dwarfs scenario.” Under that, all of the leading coalitions -- the State of Law, the Shiite alliance, Iraqiya and the Kurdish alliance -- win a roughly equal number of seats, then fall to bickering among themselves over who should be in charge.

It’s a worrisome scenario because the negotiations could drag on for months as they did in 2005 and 2006, leaving a power vacuum just as the bulk of U.S. troops here are preparing to depart. Army Gen. Ray Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, has sought to downplay expectations that a new Iraqi government will be in place by the time the last of the combat troops go home in August.

“The longer it goes on, the more likely it is that the militias and thugs will start trying to create facts on the ground using assassinations and bombs,” Pollack said. “As you get into the summer the potential for violence is going to go up.”