Iraq's Maliki, after fight to remain in power, now must work to form cabinet

By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 24, 2010; 7:49 PM

BAGHDAD - Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Thursday begins the difficult task of forming Iraq's next government.

After more than eight months of bitter negotiations among Iraq's top four political groups, the Shiite incumbent came out on top, despite alienating nearly every political ally he had during his first term, angering neighboring Iran by fracturing Shiite control, and upsetting U.S. officials with his uninhibited use of power. But Maliki drew on the resources of his office, support from the region and the lack of a realistic alternative to hold on to office with the tentative backing of both Tehran and Washington.

Now the stubborn - and frequently underestimated - prime minister faces the challenge of making good on the promises he made to win renomination. In 30 days, he is to present his cabinet to parliament or lose the nomination.

"His personality is strong, and he's a skillful politician," said Sami al-Askari, an independent Shiite legislator who is close to Maliki. "He was lucky with one point: His rivals have weaknesses."

Maliki capitalized on the faults of his biggest competitors. Ayad Allawi, the secular Shiite who heads the Sunni- and secular-backed Iraqiya bloc, was seen by religious Shiites and neighboring Iran as the leader of Iraq's Sunni Arabs. Iraqiya was also never unified, despite winning more votes in the March 7 elections than any other bloc, and that proved to be its electoral undoing. Maliki won the single largest number of votes of any candidate, and his State of Law coalition won 89 seats, just two shy of Iraqiya's 91.

Although Allawi and his bloc asserted their right to choose a prime minister and form the next government, Iraq's Federal Court ruled that the largest post-electoral group would be given the first opportunity. Iraqiya loudly proclaimed the ruling an injustice, while Maliki set out to garner the allies he needed to keep his job.

He renewed his alliance with the Shiite parties he had deserted - most important, the populist party of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which had been the most powerful Shiite party in the country before its poor showing in March and in provincial elections last year.

The unification of the Shiite parties pleased Shiite Iran. As battles over electoral fraud and constitutional disagreements raged, the United States quietly acknowledged that, despite Allawi's plurality, Maliki appeared the likeliest contender to form Iraq's government. U.S. officials launched a quest to push Allawi and Maliki into a power-sharing agreement that would limit Maliki's power as prime minister and give some to Allawi. That, too, failed, and under pressure from Iran, the Sadrists, Maliki's former adversaries, backed him for prime minister.

"For all of the unhappiness with him and rhetoric against him, there was also a certain appreciation that maybe he wasn't all that bad of a prime minister," Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009, said in an interview Wednesday. "Also, there were external elements direct or indirect, major players like the U.S. and Iran, that felt they could work with a Maliki government."

Once Maliki won the Sadrists' support, the Kurds, who had extracted a string of promises from him, also later joined him. Some smaller Shiite parties tried to forge a new alliance with Allawi to compete with Maliki but ultimately failed.

This month, Iraqiya gave in and backed Maliki after the country's most powerful Kurdish politician, Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani, spearheaded a nine-part agreement that reportedly includes measures to curb Maliki's authority over security apparatuses outside the ministries and a yet-to-be-formed strategic council - although the council will, in reality, have little power, according to Iraqi officials.

"Maliki stuck to the points he negotiated, and the others gave in, retreated from their positions and supported him," said Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish legislator. "He's not a political genius. He's a normal person who stuck to his position while others didn't. Iran supported him, and America did not know what to do. He and Iran won in the end, and the United States and Iraqiya lost."

The questions on most Iraqis' minds now are: What will the next government look like? And will Maliki keep his promises?

In addition to the security reforms that other political groups hope will limit Maliki's power, the prime minister will also have to divvy up positions to satisfy his political partners.

"It's a big test for him in front of others to show he really wants an inclusive national government," said a leading Iraqiya member who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "They stole from us the right to form the government, but in the future, if we succeed in making this parliament more powerful, we can make the government accountable."

Special correspondent Ali al-Qeisy contributed to this report.

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