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Iraq's leader gains crucial ally, but his constituents are wary

By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 11, 2010; 8:11 PM

BAGHDAD - As Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki inches closer to securing the parliamentary support he needs to keep his job, he's losing popular support on the streets and stirring alarm in Washington and Arab regional capitals.

The decision by the Shiite Sadrist movement, staunchly opposed to the U.S. presence in Iraq, to back Maliki's nomination for prime minister has boosted his chances for a second term. But voters who cast their ballots for him on March 7 say he's sacrificing their security and their votes for his political survival as Iraq enters its eighth month with no new administration.

Maliki's supporters credit him with ridding the streets of the Mahdi Army, the militant wing of the Sadr movement. But his campaign promise to continue to improve security appears to have fallen by the wayside, capital residents say.

Iraqis in former Sadr strongholds say that Maliki is allowing the release and regrouping of Shiite militias to seal a political deal between him and what was his largest Shiite rival, the Sadrists. Hundreds of Shiite militants have been released in the past few weeks to help ensure Sadrist backing of Maliki's nomination, they say.

Outside a small coffee shop in the Shiite slum of Sadr City last week, men sat on rusted benches and slammed dominoes on the table as they argued about their nation's future. They looked over their shoulders hesitantly, worried that someone could be listening.

"Maliki brought us security," said Jawad Kadhim Zayed. Now, he says, Maliki is taking it away. "Most of those Sadrists opposed the government and one of their conditions of this partnership was to release the criminals. We have killers here. They're releasing them and we know their faces."

Already there have been threats by recently released men, he said. "We are not comfortable," he said as he glanced behind at the open street.

"Our vote has no value. We gave our votes to Maliki and he stole them and gave them to the criminals," his friend Raheem Hussein added.

Some within Maliki's bloc recognize that the Sadrist backing, though it might make him prime minister, could hurt the leader domestically and internationally. Iran is in favor of Shiite Arab unity behind Maliki but some Arab nations say they are worried about a Shiite-led government with a political group that still has an active militant wing and that might play a large role in Iraq's new government.

"I don't think this deal will happen without a price that will embarrass Maliki," said Ezzat al Shahbandar, a secular Shiite in Maliki's State of Law bloc. "He's going to pay. The Sadr trend is not welcome internationally or regionally."

Publicly, U.S. officials advocate for a broad government and insist that they have no particular candidate. They worry that as time passes, security gains made over the past two years could erode.

The Sadr support has made Maliki a much less attractive candidate for the United States, which has been quietly lobbying to keep him in office for a second term as part of an inclusive government of Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs and Kurds.

Last week, U.S. Ambassador James F. Jeffrey warned that a government with a substantive Sadr presence would weaken the fledgling Iraqi democracy. "We're simply saying anyone that does not distinguish between peaceful political processes and violent intimidation, violent attacks and the threat of violence is a problematic partner for a democratic process," he said.

Maliki ran on a platform of rule of law and cross-sectarian unity, which won him more votes than any other candidate. But his political bloc came in second, by a two-seat margin, to the Sunni-backed bloc led by secular Shiite Ayad Allawi.

Now Maliki is trying to woo enough support from other political blocs to get the parliament majority he needs to form a government that will stand as the U.S. military leave Iraq at the end of 2011.

Maliki became prime minister in 2006 as a largely unknown figure who was selected in part because he was seen as a compromise Shiite candidate. The Sadrists' backing at the time allowed him to defeat his coalition rival. Sectarian violence rose during his first year and the civil war escalated. U.S.-backed Sunni groups began to fight Sunni extremists.

Maliki was accused of turning a blind eye as militants roamed the streets. But in spring 2008 he ordered an offensive in the southern port city of Basra targeting the Mahdi Army.

Iraqi forces battled the militia from the south to parts of Sadr-controlled Baghdad. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Sadr followers were rounded up in what Sadrists called unjust detentions before their leader, the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, ordered his fighters to stand down.

Maliki lost his political ally but his popularity soared among many Shiite Arabs and some Sunni Arabs tired of the Mahdi Army's militant rule.

Now by partnering with the Sadrists, Maliki risks losing his constituents' support.

Maliki's aides are quick to offer assurances that the Sadr movement is interested in playing a positive role in Iraq, and that Maliki would not allow militias to surge in the streets. During negotiations with the Sadrists, Maliki promised that the government would review the cases of Sadr followers and others who were jailed without charges.

"The detainees that have been released lately are those that haven't committed any crime, and they are innocent," said Ali al-Adeeb, a leading member of Maliki's State of Law bloc. "The Sadrists have asked to be a real partner in the government."

fadell@washpost.com Special correspondent Aziz Alwan contributed to this report.

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