Is Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki Finished?

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Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's bid to remain in power isn't looking too good. Maliki's State of Law coalition did moderately well in the March elections, securing 89 of Parliament's 325 seats. His top rival, former interim leader Ayad Allawi, won 91 seats for his Iraqiya coalition. Both coalitions are currently lobbying other parties to join with them in building the 163-seat majority required to lead the next government. But Maliki, who became Prime Minister in May 2006, has suffered damaging political blows this week, and the odds that his coalition will prevail appear at an all time low.

The Sunni Arabs who make up about 25% of Iraq have never loved Maliki. But the block's rising political prominence and worsening tension with the Prime Minister may become enough to doom him. A Baghdad facility under the jurisdiction of special military units that report to Maliki secretly detained hundreds of Sunni Arab men in recent month, the Los Angeles Times reported on Monday. Though Maliki denied knowledge of the facility, he defended his use of special prisons and military units as essential to security. Regardless of the extent of his connection to the facility, the reports will worsen his already contentious relationship with Sunni Arabs. Not long after Maliki's election in 2006, General Peter Chiarelli, then the number two U.S. general in Iraq, warned the Prime Minister that his practice of denying basic services to Sunni communities was feeding sectarian violence. Maliki relented, but his hostility towards Sunni Arabs still bled into official policy. He has long accused prominent Sunnis of being secret Baathist party members, who are officially barred from participating in government because the party was once headed by Saddam Hussein. In January, his government banned hundreds of well-known Sunni Arabs from the impending elections, including several high-profile candidates. (Under international pressure, Maliki repealed most of the bans.)

Ayad Allawi, though a Shia Arab like Maliki, gained wide support by Sunni Arabs, as much 75 percent of whom voted in the recent election. Iraq's other political parties understand that Sunni Arabs are willing to support whoever will champion their interests and whose support can turn an otherwise moderately popular candidate like Allawi into the top vote-winner. Parties like the Kurdish alliance and the Iran-allied ISCI and Dawa, weighing whether to support Allawi or Maliki's coalitions, are wary of antagonizing Sunni Arabs by backing Maliki. The Iranian embassy in Baghdad is insisting on Sunni Arab involvement in the next Iraq government, a tacit endorsement of Allawi over Maliki.

There's one political party, however, that wouldn't flinch at alienating Sunni Arabs: The Sadrists, led by extremist Shia cleric Moktada al-Sadr and based in the sprawling Baghdad slum Sadr City, won 40 seats in the election. Sadr's sectarian militia, the Jaysh al-Mahdi, brutally terrorized Sunni Arabs -- and, sometimes, American troops -- for years. While the Sadrists appear to currently favor parliamentary wrangling over violence, no one is accusing them of going soft on their hatred of Sunnis. Maliki, who as Prime Minister was careful not to unnecessarily anger Sadr City residents, and was sensitive to Sadr's demands, could probably secure the Sadrist's 40 seats. However, even that would leave Maliki more than 30 seats shy of a majority.

A strong leader whose emphasis on security and nationalism carried Iraq through the sectarian violence of 2006 and 2007 that could have torn the country apart, Maliki remains popular across much of Iraq. But as Iraq has calmed and the nation's priorities have shifted form ending ethnic warfare to tasks such as negotiating provincial border disputes, Maliki's support has waned. A prickly and sometimes paranoid authoritarian who is not known for embracing the checks and balances of democracy, the Prime Minister was well suited for the challenges of his tenure. But as Iraq enters a new era defined by new challenges, Iraqi voters and political leaders may believe that Maliki is no longer the man for the job.

Image: Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, center, speaking to reporters in Baghdad. Ali Abbas/Getty Images


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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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