Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, pictured at a Washington press conference in December 2011, has been called an autocrat by his critics. (Chip Somodevilla/GETTY IMAGES)

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s allies and opponents have been almost equally vocal in their criticism of him this week, calling the premier an autocrat who has failed to keep his promises.

Maliki, in power since 2006, built his credibility by being a strong ruler. But he has long faced charges of wielding too much power over the security forces, the judiciary and other state institutions — criticisms that have only increased since the withdrawal of U.S. forces in December.

But despite the mounting dissent within his fragile government, Maliki’s position seems strong, with moves to sideline his opponents and divide political blocs allowing him to sidestep challenges and build what critics say is a system far from the democratic Iraq that American officials had hoped for.

This week, some members of the Iraqiya bloc, led by Maliki’s chief political rival, Ayad Allawi, threatened to walk out of parliament, frustrated by long delays in a promised conference on political reconciliation. And Monday, followers of the influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose party is allied with Maliki’s, rallied in Basra, demanding better services and carrying a coffin marked “Democracy.”

In a fierce speech Tuesday, the president of the semiautonomous Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani, seemed to directly challenge the prime minister, charging that a 2010 power-sharing deal between Iraq’s major political blocs is now “completely nonexistent and has become meaningless” because Maliki has not respected it. And, echoing long-standing concerns that Maliki’s loyalists dominate the security services, Barzani said, “There is an attempt to establish a one-million-strong army whose loyalty is only to a single person.”

‘A new dictatorship’

Officials and analysts say there is substance behind some of the accusations against Maliki.

“We think the state is heading toward a new dictatorship, not by iron or fighting, but by legal decisions,” said Sabah al-Saadi, an independent member of parliament and onetime head of an anti-corruption commission. He said that people close to Maliki pressured him to fabricate corruption allegations against the prime minister’s enemies and that Maliki pushed the federal supreme court into putting the commission more directly under his control.

Members of Iraqiya also accused Maliki of manipulating the legal system last year. Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi was charged with terrorism offenses in December; Hashimi has denied the allegations and has fled to the northern Kurdish region.

The charges were issued shortly after a deputy prime minister, Saleh al-Mutlak, also with Iraqiya, called Maliki a dictator in a television interview. Maliki called for a governmental vote of no confidence in Mutlak, and tanks surrounded his house. Mutlak left Iraq for Jordan, and he remains there.

The subsequent political crisis saw Iraqiya ministers walk out of the cabinet and Kurdish hostility toward Maliki grow, as central authorities called for Kurdish leaders to hand over Hashimi. Sectarian discontent intensified as Iraqiya’s mainly Sunni constituency became resentful of Maliki and his Shiite power base.

The dispute grew more bitter Thursday when Hashimi accused the government of torturing to death one of his bodyguards, who was in jail in connection with the same terrorism charges.

Hadi al-Asadi, a member of parliament from Maliki’s coalition, said the bodyguard died of kidney disease, and he defended the prime minister, calling Barzani’s recent speech “unfortunate and unjustified.”

Maliki is not autocratic but a leader who makes decisions in consultation with his cabinet, Asadi said. He added that in the case of Hashimi, the judiciary, against Maliki’s personal wishes, insisted on issuing an arrest warrant for the vice president and dozens of his bodyguards.

Maliki, too, has denied that the charges against Hashimi were politically motivated. But Mutlak insists that tensions flared because of ongoing concerns that Maliki has continued to increase his influence over some parts of Iraq’s security forces.

To help implement the power-sharing agreement, a commission was formed in August to investigate sectarian balance within government ministries.

According to Mutlak, who served on the commission, the investigation found that Shiites, many of them members of Maliki’s Dawa party, held many more top jobs in the Defense and Interior ministries than they would if the positions reflected Iraq’s demography.

“The constitution says there should be a balance between the components, but they want ministries to be controlled by parties,” Mutlak said.

A spokesman for Hussein al-Shahristani, another deputy prime minister who is close to Maliki and who worked on the report, countered that it was unfinished. He added that although Shiites were disproportionately represented in the lower echelons of the security forces, the most senior figures were drawn from all political and ethnic groups.

Sadr’s political party backed Maliki for prime minister in December 2010. However, it, too, is turning against him. Tens of thousands rallied in the southern city of Basra on Monday, calling for greater resources for the provinces. Sadrist members of parliament have been highly critical of the prime minister, and Sadr last month made a religious pronouncement referring obliquely to the problem of dictatorship.

‘Particularly inept’ opposition

Although his opponents are angry and vocal, Maliki has retained his strong position, partly because of the difficulty they face in uniting to challenge him.

Since 2008, when Maliki’s successful Charge of the Knights military campaign against militias in Basra strengthened his political position, his rivals have been trying to band together against him, said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group think tank.

“But they have been particularly inept at doing so,” he said. “Part of the reason is that they have fundamental differences between them. The biggest difference is between the Kurds and Iraqiya.”

Many of Iraqiya’s members are from the north and live in areas whose control is disputed between Kurdistan’s regional government and the central government in Baghdad, leading to acrimony and occasional local clashes.

“They will never agree on fundamental issues,” said Hiltermann, adding that Sadr, too, is unlikely to mount a challenge for the moment as Maliki still has support among much of his Shiite constituency.

The political stalemate may endure for now, and unless his rivals can mount a unified, concerted challenge, Maliki could remain in power until parliamentary elections set for 2014. Constitutionally, there is no impediment to his running for a third term.

But upheaval engulfing the region could prove a crucial factor in Iraqi power struggles, particularly the violent chaos in Syria. Diplomats and analysts say that if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is from the Shiite-linked Alawite sect, were toppled by a mostly Sunni uprising, Iraq’s Sunni minority could be emboldened, changing the country’s political landscape.