BAGHDAD — His campaign poster, jostling among the thousands that line the streets of the capital, has a message of unity: “Together we build Iraq.”
But as the country prepares for its first elections since the withdrawal of U.S. troops, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s political rivals accuse him of the opposite: stoking sectarian divisions and dismantling its hard-won democracy.
No party is expected to win a majority in Iraq’s parliamentary elections Wednesday, the first since the last U.S. troops pulled out of the country nearly 21 / 2 years ago, which makes the results difficult to forecast. The unpredictability of Iraqi politics was underlined in the last elections four years ago, when the bloc that won the greatest share of the vote lost the premiership to Maliki in the political horse-trading that followed.
Most observers agree on two things, however: Maliki is unlikely to give up without a bitter fight, and he has unrivaled power and resources to help him hold on.
Since he took office eight years ago, in the country’s first elections after the U.S.-led invasion, his critics have accused him of centralizing power.
After the last elections, in 2010, Maliki took on the roles of minister of defense, interior and national security — positions he still holds. He also is head of the armed forces.
A law passed by parliament that would have prevented him from running for a third term was overturned last year by the courts. The judicial system is under his influence, rights groups say. Meanwhile, rival parties accuse him of sidelining their candidates.
“This is not what we promised the Iraqi people. This is not why we fought Saddam,” said Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who won the largest proportion of the vote in 2010. “This is not why allied forces lost lives. It’s an agonizing situation.” He said 38 candidates from his political bloc have been barred from the elections on “various pretexts,” but the country’s electoral commission said that 34 candidates from all parties have been banned.
Maliki’s office contends that it cannot interfere with court decisions and that appointments to key ministerial posts have been hampered by Iraq’s parliament. His spokesman Ali al-Moussawi said that Maliki is hoping to secure a stronger coalition after Wednesday’s vote and that negotiations on alliances are underway.
“Nouri al-Maliki is looking for a political majority government. The ground is already being set for this majority alliance and an understanding already exists,” Moussawi said. “Before, we couldn’t achieve this, and the government had to include all the parties. This has been proven to be a failure.”
But even if Maliki wins the largest proportion of the vote, forming a government may be a hard task. In his years in office, he has caused friction, including among fellow Shiites.
Last month, supporters of the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr burned pictures of Maliki in the streets. Maliki had insulted Sadr’s political acumen, and Sadr retorted by describing the prime minister as a “dictator.”
Supporters of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, another Shiite party expected to perform strongly Wednesday, took to the streets in Basra in solidarity. At a recent election rally, crowds threw empty bottles at the prime minister as he spoke, according to local news reports and videos that circulated online.
“We don’t see any progress,” said Abu Hussein, a soldier from Sadr City in east Baghdad, who says he regrets voting for Maliki in 2010.
Despite being one of the world’s top oil-exporting countries, Iraq is plagued by unemployment, poverty and a lack of basic services. But Abu Hussein, 28, said his biggest grievance is Maliki’s military operations in Anbar, which he says are politically motivated and achieving little but the deaths of his colleagues. The more caskets that return, he said, the more support Maliki loses among his traditional support base.
The Shiite-led government is fighting an al-Qaeda-inspired insurgency in the western Sunni province, a conflict edging ever closer to the capital. The violence has been stoked by discontent among the Sunni minority, who complain of being marginalized by Maliki. After four months of fighting, the capital of Anbar remains contested, while the city of Fallujah is in the hands of insurgents.
Maliki has been regularly accused of provoking the instability in Anbar for his own gain, playing on sectarian fears to rally Shiite support and dismantling Sunni protest camps in the region with an eye on the election.
“He’s trying by all means to hold on to power, creating crisis after crisis,” said Hamid al-Mutlaq, a Sunni politician.
It is an accusation Moussawi, the spokesman, describes as “utterly stupid.” The prime minister was forced to act, he said, despite the sensitivities of launching a military campaign close to the elections.
The violence has raised concerns that many will be unable to get to the polls. More than 400,000 Iraqis in Anbar have been uprooted. Adding to the chaos, the largely Sunni Abu Ghraib area west of Baghdad has been declared a disaster zone after flooding, with as many as 100,000 displaced. Sunni politicians have gone as far as accusing the government of causing the floods to keep the Sunni minority from the ballot box.
Meanwhile, car bombs are causing terror in Baghdad. A triple bombing hit an election rally held by the newly established political wing of a Shiite militia Friday, killing at least 31 people.
On Monday, 50 people were killed in attacks as security forces and others took part in early voting, and Iraqis fear that the week will bring even more blood.
In the country’s north, Maliki’s policies have isolated ethnic Kurds, who are edging toward independence.
“Unless Maliki is replaced or drastically changes his policies, these might be the last elections in a nominally united Iraq,” Paul Salem of the Middle East Institute said in a recent analysis.
But as Iraqis take to the ballot box, outside influence will be key. In the past, Maliki has had backing from the United States and Iran, although that may be falling away.
While U.S. influence has waned since troops withdrew, the growing rifts among Iraq’s Shiites and in the country as a whole could mean Maliki will lose the backing of neighboring Iran. Some analysts say the division he has caused in the country could see Iran, a Shiite state that wields significant influence over Iraqi politics, push another candidate, although only if Maliki does not win decisively.
“There is no United States; Iran is the sole most important power in Iraq,” Allawi said. “If you are with Iran, you can get away with murder.”