By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 4, 2010; A01
BAGHDAD -- Almost four years after his accidental rise to power, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is trying to retain his job without the allies who made him Iraq's ruler the first time around.
Maliki remains the most powerful Shiite political leader in the country. But he finds himself politically isolated and regionally estranged, with his foremost selling point, a fragile security on the streets of Iraq, crumbling after a series of attacks on government buildings and iconic Baghdad hotels that has killed more than 400 people since August.
With parliamentary elections scheduled for March 7, the question of whether Maliki can hold on as prime minister will determine what kind of country the U.S. military leaves behind as it significantly reduces its presence this spring.
Maliki remains an inscrutable figure: He began as an obscure politician viewed by many as sectarian, has lately cast himself as a nationalist and has spawned fears of a return to the kind of authoritarianism that prevailed before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Another Maliki term could shepherd Iraq's democratic experiment forward or could expose it as an aberration amid a much longer history of dictatorial rule.
His allies say there is no other option. It is Maliki, they say, who has brought stability to a country that has had five changes of government in six years.
"Maliki has managed to stay in power not because he is strong or weak but because of the absence of an alternative," said Sami al-Askari, an independent Shiite politician close to the prime minister.
But even allies say Maliki's effort to transform his image from a Shiite Islamist to an Iraqi nationalist may ultimately defeat him. Having distanced himself from sect- and ethnicity-based coalitions, he has won fewer friends than enemies. Other Shiite Islamists worry that he has opened the door to rival powers: Kurds are angered by his challenges to their territorial claims; he failed to woo prominent Sunni Arabs into his political bloc; and Iran, which aided Maliki's rise to power, feels it has lost control over him.
"He feels isolated politically and regionally, but he thinks that he is accepted by the nation," said Ezzat Shahbandar, an independent Shiite politician who has joined Maliki's coalition.
The legitimacy of the election is the biggest worry for the United States. Concern has grown after a decision by an Iraqi government commission to disqualify more than 500 candidates purportedly adhering to the ideals of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, the most prominent of whom are Sunni Arabs. A ruling on Wednesday by a panel of judges might allow the banned candidates to run, but the initial disqualification has already alienated Sunnis, who boycotted the 2005 elections.
Maliki, who has long feared that the Baathists could rise again, is in a precarious position. If he pushes to reinstate the candidates, he risks alienating voters who fear the return of the Baathists; if he does not, he loses credibility among Sunni Arabs, whom he has tried hard to woo.The evolution of a leader
Maliki took office in 2006 as a compromise candidate. As the choice to succeed Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari, he was picked primarily because Shiites were torn between the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the once-dominant Shiite group that was created in Iran and spent years in exile there, and the Sadrists, a grass-roots party that represents the Shiite poor.
Iran, the Shiite parties and their Kurdish allies thought they could control Maliki, a member of the smaller Dawa party. But two years into his term, he stunned his supporters and crossed sectarian lines.
In 2008, he went to southern Iraq and led a charge against Shiite militants who controlled the port city of Basra. With the help of U.S. military power and Iranian diplomacy, the city calmed. The result was a strained relationship with the now-splintered Sadrist movement, led by popular cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. But Maliki also bolstered his credibility among Sunni Arabs.
Maliki later signed a security agreement that established a schedule for ending the U.S. occupation, and he has challenged Kurdish forces in the north, angering Kurdish allies but winning Arab support.
During provincial elections last year, Maliki's State of Law coalition won a plurality in nine of 14 provinces that voted, including the capital.
But his popularity has waned in recent months. Maliki's supporters say his unwillingness to be anyone's puppet has cost him friends.
Critics contend that he circumvents ministries and consults only a small circle of advisers.Ruptured alliances
Iraq has a multiparty parliamentary system. Lawmakers choose the president, who in turn gives the largest coalition in the parliament the first opportunity to choose the prime minister and form the government. If Maliki's bloc can win the largest number of seats, a majority in the parliament will still be needed to endorse his government. Without alliances, that could prove impossible.
"He has to manage to get alliances with others or he's done," said Askari, the independent Shiite politician.
Erstwhile allies say they will not support Maliki this time around.
Sadr's followers accuse Maliki of targeting their party, despite its role in choosing him as prime minister. The group's militia is accused of playing a major part in Iraq's sectarian war.
"Everyone has the point of view that al-Maliki gave promises, big promises, but he is not true to his word," said Salah al-Obeidi, a spokesman for Sadr's political office. "Why would I cooperate with you if I only give and I do not take?"The Iran factor
Maliki's allies say he's worried that his former allies, including Iran, are trying to sabotage him.
"Iran feels Maliki is not in their hands. The last test was to see whether he stays with the Shiite alliance or not," said Shahbandar, the independent Shiite who is running with Maliki. "He failed this test."
To at least one ally, Maliki has confided a fear that Iran might want to kill him, Shahbandar said.
"He understands if Iran wants to harm him [politically], the Americans won't defend him," said Ali Hatem al-Suleiman, a Sunni tribal leader who has endorsed Maliki's coalition.
A U.S. military officer said Iran was at least indirectly facilitating or sponsoring recent attacks in Baghdad through its influence over the security forces. The officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he feared that the attacks were aimed at discrediting Maliki's reputation for reducing violence and at stoking sectarian tensions, which make it harder for him to strike alliances with Sunni parties.
In recent weeks, Maliki seems to have felt the pressure to return to the Shiite Islamist fold and appeal to his original constituency.
In a visit to Najaf this month, he met with the top Shiite spiritual leader in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Afterward, Maliki announced a likely post-election alliance with the Shiite group he had broken with.
"It was a quiet message from the holy city of Najaf to the Shiites that their commanders will be united," said Ali al-Adeeb, a member of Maliki's Dawa party.
But even if a deal is struck and Maliki retains power, his final aims are enigmatic, said Suleiman, the Sunni ally.
"No one knows what's in his heart," Suleiman said.
Special correspondent Qais Mizher contributed to this report.