Amid Shifting Iraqi Politics, Maliki Takes A Gamble

Wide: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki surveys damage to the foreign ministry building, Aug. 24 i i

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki surveys damage to the foreign ministry building, five days after truck bombings struck in Baghdad, Iraq, on Aug. 19, 2009. The suicide bombings devastated the foreign and finance ministries, killing about 100 people and dealing a major blow to confidence in the country's security forces. Karim Kadim/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Karim Kadim/AP
Wide: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki surveys damage to the foreign ministry building, Aug. 24

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki surveys damage to the foreign ministry building, five days after truck bombings struck in Baghdad, Iraq, on Aug. 19, 2009. The suicide bombings devastated the foreign and finance ministries, killing about 100 people and dealing a major blow to confidence in the country's security forces.

Karim Kadim/AP

In Iraq this past week, a major religious and political leader died, and the prime minister took a gamble with his political life. The events could mark the beginning of a new era in Iraqi politics.

Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, who passed away Wednesday of lung cancer at 59, transformed the country by promoting sectarian politics. Under the influence of his Shiite political party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, Shiite votes brought Shiite politicians to power for the first time, but alienated Sunni Arabs in the country.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki owes his job to the votes of fellow Shiites. But this week he stayed away from a new Shiite political coalition and may go it alone in January's national elections.

Maliki Popular Among Ordinary Iraqis

On the streets of Iraq, Maliki, prime minister since 2006, still appears to command respect, even after two truck bombs ripped through government ministries and nearby neighborhoods earlier this month.

Residents of a damaged housing complex have nothing but praise for the prime minister. He came to see them personally after the bombings and later handed out checks for 5 million Iraqi dinars — about $4,000 — to families who suffered the most damage.

It is unusual for an Iraqi politician to get so up close and personal.

Emad Mohammad, 58, was grateful and says he'll remember Maliki when the prime minister stands for reelection in January.

"Of course, checking on families helps his popularity. [Maliki] feels our pains, this is why we support him in the elections," Mohammad says.

The prime minister's political success is staked on providing security. But he had to admit failures after bombers took advantage of gaps in his plan. Maliki lashed out at Syria for harboring the masterminds, accused other neighboring countries of funding his enemies, and ordered arrests within his own security service.

These were popular moves, says Um Waleed, who lost her home in the string of bombings in mid-August.

"He fired some of the officers just to have security achieved. All of us are with him, he is our flower here," she says.

Factions United In Opposition To Maliki

But the security crisis altered the country's political landscape. In parliament, lawmakers grilled the prime minister's security team. The parliament speaker is a Sunni Arab, Ayad al-Samarrai, who says Maliki has amassed too much power.

"Unless we have a strong parliament, more power would be in the hand of the prime minister," he adds.

These are first steps for opposition lawmakers, says Sam Parker, an Iraq expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. In parliament, minority factions — Sunni Arabs, secular Shiite politicians and others — have formed coalitions to try to curb the power of the prime minister, who dominates Iraqi politics and many of the institutions of the emerging state.

The country's top Shiite political leaders — minus Maliki — formed the United Iraqi Alliance last Monday in a move that assures a contentious election season and raised questions of whether Maliki can win a second term.

With five months to go before the parliamentary elections, Iraq's new politics are a source of endless speculation. Will Maliki run alone? Will he join the Shiite alliance? What happens after another major bomb attack?

"What you are seeing in parliament is that a lot of factions — Sunni, Shiite, Kurds — all are finding what they have in common is a desire to limit and oppose Maliki," Parker says.

On a recent evening, Fadhil Abbass, 55, was among a group of men playing dominoes and backgammon at a Baghdad cafe. The men say they support a strong leader.

"Maliki will smash the others. He will win and reach the top," Abbass says.

Transcending Sectarian Lines?

Many in Baghdad say they understand why Maliki refused to join the new Shiite coalition. It's another sign of changing politics. Maliki portrays himself as a nationalist now, running on his record, reaching out for Sunni Arab support.

A young government worker, Mohammed Mahdi Abbas, says Maliki doesn't need the religious Shiite parties now.

"We say that Maliki is a Shiite guy, but now Sunnis praise him before [Shiites do]. God willing, we are one people," Abbas says.

Maliki is taking a risk to win another term. If he runs against the major Shiite religious parties, he could split the Shiite vote. So far, he has no Sunni political partners, and no one can say for certain that Iraqis are ready to vote across sectarian lines.

Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq's former national security adviser who is running for parliament, says that unless Iraq closes the sectarian divide, the country cannot move ahead.

"If we don't cross the sectarian lines, the ethnic lines, the next general elections will be doomed," Rubaie says. "There is no shadow of that in my mind, and we're heading for disaster and total failure, we will not be able to build a state of Iraq."

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