Maliki Creates Coalition To Compete in Iraqi Vote

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 2, 2009

BAGHDAD, Oct. 1 -- Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Thursday unveiled a coalition to compete in parliamentary elections in January that will decide whether he remains in power, as the focus of Iraqi politics moves from months of backroom negotiations over electoral alliances to a contest to sway a largely disenchanted public.

Maliki's alliance, the State of Law coalition, continues to be led by his Dawa party, a venerable Shiite Muslim group that has lately sought to portray itself as less sectarian and more nationalist. Its leaders, part of a group critics have called the "impenetrable circle," shared the stage with the prime minister at the announcement. But Maliki has shown a shrewd understanding of political power in the country, and his alliance drew on support from personalities and tribal figures in all of the country's Sunni Muslim provinces.

Politics here still follow a sectarian and ethnic formula -- Sunni Arab, Shiite Arab and Kurd -- but Maliki, himself once seen as an ardently sectarian figure, has wagered on a nationalist platform that stresses a powerful central government, reconciliation, sovereignty, and Iraqi and Arab identity. He is convinced it will help him prevail over his main rival, onetime Shiite allies joined in a coalition called the Iraqi National Alliance.

"The State of Law coalition represents all Iraqis in realizing their aspirations by building a strong, independent, secure and prosperous Iraq," he declared.

The announcement ended months of negotiations in which Maliki almost joined his rivals' coalition. In the end, those talks fell apart over Maliki's demand for a majority of seats in parliament and assurances that he would be the group's candidate for prime minister.

Maliki's coalition did not draw the Sunni support that many had expected it would. He lost the backing of Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, the vitriolic former parliament speaker, and, more important, that of Ahmed Abu Risha, whose brother led the U.S.-backed counterinsurgency in western Iraq. Nor did he win over more established Sunni or secular blocs or parties that could have delivered him broader support in Sunni provinces, where Maliki has managed to win reserved support with his nationalist rhetoric.

Still, Maliki's coalition provided a far more diverse picture than his Shiite rivals did. He drew some supporters of Ayad Allawi, a former prime minister who has stood as the standard-bearer of the secular vote. Borrowing a page from ousted President Saddam Hussein, he also sought to curry the support of Iraq's tribes, both Sunni and Shiite, which were lavished with jobs, cars and other patronage in the last decade of Hussein's rule.

Iraq's elections are set for Jan. 16, but lawmakers have yet to agree on a law to organize the vote. Nearly everyone acknowledges the difficulty of drafting the legislation, since it would require some kind of compromise over voting in Kirkuk, a city in the north that is contested by Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens. Nearly everyone also admits that delaying the elections past January would plunge Iraq into a constitutional limbo.

The campaign's key battle will pit Maliki's coalition against his Shiite rivals in the Iraqi National Alliance, with both trying to win southern Iraq, home to Iraq's Shiite majority.

"The real struggle is between the two Shiite lists, in the end," said Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert with the International Crisis Group.

Maliki's aides have portrayed their Shiite opponents as beholden to Iran, which played a decisive role in bringing them together, and warned against external influences, in particular the money from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Arab countries that is expected to pour into the campaign.

Maliki, meanwhile, will have to defend himself from critics' charges that he is splitting the Shiite vote, accusations that play to historic and entrenched insecurities within a community that was long disenfranchised. Maliki's deputies openly suggest that rivals might resort to violence to sully his reputation for helping restore security.

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