In Iraq's Provincial Elections, Main Issue Is Maliki Himself

Nouri al-Maliki: a reputation as nonsectarian.
Nouri al-Maliki: a reputation as nonsectarian. (Handout - Getty Images)
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By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 17, 2009

BAGHDAD -- The stern face of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki glares out from campaign posters plastered across Iraq these days.

He is not on any ballot in the provincial elections scheduled for Jan. 31. But in agreeing to be the public image of the Coalition of the State of Law, a group of candidates running primarily on his record, Maliki has effectively turned the contest into a referendum on his rule.

The elections will be the most crucial test so far of Maliki's attempt to bolster the central government's authority -- and his own. If he succeeds in establishing a nationwide base of local politicians ready to support him and the idea of centralized government, Maliki will have cemented his three-year transformation from little-known lawmaker to the most powerful Iraqi statesman since Saddam Hussein.

Despite the history of his Dawa party as a Shiite political movement opposed to secular governments, Maliki and his State of Law coalition have avoided overt religious messages in favor of populist promises to improve security and basic services such as water and electricity.

His growing popularity has threatened the authority of his longtime allies, including Kurds and fellow Shiites, as has the growing perception that he is becoming a strongman. Critics fear that he will expand his political strength in the coming elections.

"We got rid of the dictator and nightmare Saddam Hussein only to get this new dictator wearing the uniform of democracy," said Waleed Salih Sherka, a parliament member with the Kurdish bloc.

But interviews with more than 100 Iraqis across the country showed broad support for Maliki, in many cases because of the strong-arm tactics that trouble his allies. Shiites said they backed him, but so did many Sunnis, who increasingly see him as a nonsectarian leader. He has built that reputation over the past year by launching military offensives against the militia of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, once an ally, and by making bellicose threats against the Kurds, a key part of his governing coalition.

When asked about the provincial elections, Yasser Ali, a 31-year-old Shiite who said he did not support Maliki when he became prime minister, let out a string of expletives directed at politicians.

"All of them should go to hell!" he shouted while sticking skewers into chunks of meat on a crowded street in Baghdad's upscale Karrada neighborhood.

But the kebab cook had no such words for the prime minister. "No, no, no -- al-Maliki is good. He is a beautiful flower. But no one is helping al-Maliki. He is the only one working for all Iraqis, while the others are working for their private interests."

Ali said he plans to vote for the State of Law coalition, which he referred to as Maliki's list, even though he has no idea who the candidates on it are. "You see, we are new to politics here. No one knows all the details," Ali said. "But we know one thing: Maliki is a good, brave man who has helped us."

'Iraqist,' Not Islamist

Salah Abdel Razaq, national campaign manager of the State of Law coalition, said he has had a simple election strategy: It's all about Maliki.

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