Amid Shifting Iraqi Politics, Maliki Takes A Gamble Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki owes his job to the Shiite vote in Iraq, but he has stayed away from a new Shiite political coalition and may go it alone in January elections. But he risks splitting the Shiite vote, nor is it clear that Iraqis are ready to vote across sectarian lines.
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Amid Shifting Iraqi Politics, Maliki Takes A Gamble

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Amid Shifting Iraqi Politics, Maliki Takes A Gamble

Amid Shifting Iraqi Politics, Maliki Takes A Gamble

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This week in Iraq, a major Iraqi political leader died and Iraq's prime minister took a gamble with his political life. Could mark a new era in Iraqi politics.

Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, transformed the country by promoting sectarian politics. Shiite and Muslim votes brought Shiite politicians to power for the first time in Iraq but alienated Sunni Arabs in the country.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki owes his job to the Shiite vote, but this week stayed away from a new Shiite political coalition and may go it alone in January's national elections. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Baghdad.

(Soundbite of horns honking)

DEBORAH AMOS: On the streets of the capital, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki still appears to command respect, even after two truck bombs ripped through government ministries and the neighborhoods nearby earlier this month.

Protestors at a damaged housing complex have only praise for the prime minister. A day earlier, he had come to see them personally and later handed out checks for five million Iraqi dinars — about $4,000 U.S. — for families that suffered the most. It's unusual for an Iraqi politician to get so up close and personal.

Fifty-nine-year-old Emad Mohammad was grateful.

Mr. EMAD MOHAMMAD: (Through translator) Of course, of course, checking on families helps his popularity. He feels our pains. This is why we support him in the elections.

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

All popular moves, according Um Waleed, who lost her home in the attacks.

Ms. UM WALEED: (Through translator) He fired some of the officers just to have security achieved. All of us are with him. He is our flower here.

AMOS: The new rules of the political game were being written in the aftermath of the security crisis. One example was in the parliament, where lawmakers grilled the prime minister's security team. The speaker of parliament is a Sunni Arab, Ayad al-Samarrai, who says Prime Minister Maliki has amassed too much power.

Mr. AYAD AL-SAMARRAI (Speaker of Parliament): Yes, I think so.

AMOS: Do you think that parliament is the right institution to balance the prime minister's power?

Mr. AL-SAMARRAI: Unless we have a strong parliament, more power will be in the hand of the prime minister.

AMOS: These are first steps for lawmakers, says Sam Parker with the U.S. Institute of Peace. In parliament, the minorities — Sunni Arabs, Kurds, secular Shiite politicians and others — form coalitions to try to curb the power of the prime minister, who dominates Iraqi politics and many of the institutions of the emerging state.

Mr. SAM PARKER (U.S. Institute of Peace): And what you're seeing in parliament is that a lot of factions - Sunni, Shia, Kurd - all are finding what they have in common is a desire to limit and oppose Maliki.

AMOS: But in this café, where men play dominoes and backgammon after sunset, Iraqis support a strong man, says 55-year-old Fadhil Abbass.

Mr. FADHIL ABBASS: (Through translator) Maliki will smash the others. He will win and reach the top.

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

For Mohammed Abbas, a young government worker, Maliki doesn't need the religious parties now.

Mr. MOHAMMED ABBASS (Government Worker): (Through translator) We say that Maliki is a Shiite guy, but now Sunnis praise him before Shia does. God willing, we are one people.

AMOS: Maliki is making a risky gamble to win another term. If he runs against the major Shiite religious parties, he could split the Shiite vote. And so far, he has no Sunni political partners, and no one can say for sure that Iraqis are ready to vote across sectarian lines.

Mr. MOFAK AL-RIBI(ph) (Former Iraqi National Security Advisor): So if we don't cross the sectarian line and ethnic lines, the next general election will doomed.

AMOS: Former National Security Advisor Mofak al-Ribi, who's running for parliament, says that unless Iraq closes the sectarian divide, the country cannot move forward.

Mr. AL-RIBI: And there is no (unintelligible) of that in my mind. We are heading for disaster and total failure. We will not be able to build a state of Iraq.

AMOS: It's still five months before the national elections, and in the coffee houses of Baghdad the new rules of politics are a source of endless speculation.

Will Maliki run alone? Will he join the Shiite alliance? Another major attack could change the rules again.

Debra Amos, NPR News, Baghdad.

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