Maliki plots his next move
BAGHDAD - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Da'wa party is carefully considering its alliances ahead of a crucial parliamentary election that will likely determine whether he remains in power.
Da'wa is weighing whether to join a powerful Shi'ite-led alliance or form its own nationalist, multi-confessional coalition to contest January's parliamentary election, a decision that is expected to impact Maliki's bid for re-election.
Da'wa, a Shi'ite party that advocates a populist platform, is asking for more clout in exchange for joining a new coalition led by the country's top Shi'ite parties, the Iraqi National Alliance (INA). But Da'wa has faced an uphill battle in demanding a leadership role among conservative Shi'ite parties, many of which worry that Maliki wants to consolidate power.
Whether it is the INA or a new alliance spearheaded by Da'wa, the party appears intent on leading a coalition.
Negotiations with other Shi'ite parties over Da'wa's role in the INA have dragged on for months and are still continuing. But some sources have indicated that Maliki is ready to go it alone, by turning his State of Law coalition, which did well in provincial elections earlier this year, into a national alliance.
However, insiders admit that whatever option he chooses carries risks.
"If Maliki wins the majority of votes and is re-elected prime minister, then he will have ongoing friction with INA and its supporters. This will put him in an unstable situation," said a senior Da'wa party source who asked not to be named.
But the source said if Maliki leads an alliance that does not do well in the elections "then the Da'wa party will lose a lot of our political power and we will lose our allies as well".
"It's very difficult to make a decision," he added. "Because of this, we are holding a lot of discussions and negotiations. We want to make the right decision."
Maliki's tough leadership style has shaken up the traditional power base of Shi'ite politics and given Da'wa unprecedented clout.
The party's State of Law coalition unseated top religious Shi'ite parties, including the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, ISCI, in many provinces during the local elections.
Shi'ite parties had a fragile national coalition - the United Iraqi Alliance - but parties in the coalition competed for power locally, straining relations between them.
Maliki pressed Shi'ite parties for more power on the national stage after Da'wa's successful performance in the local elections. Da'wa has demanded half of the INA's seats in the upcoming parliament, but ISCI, the top party in the coalition, would only guarantee Da'wa one-quarter of legislator slots, Shi'ite political sources said.
"They did not give him [Maliki] the quota he deserved based on the results of the provincial elections," said Ali Jaber al-Basri, a Da'wa party leader.
Muna Zalzala, a parliamentarian from the ISCI, said the coalition wants Maliki in the INA, but refused to set aside a fixed percentage of seats for Da'wa or any other party.
"We have already said any party is welcome to join us, but they cannot impose their conditions," she said.
Some observers believe that no Shi'ite-led alliance can move forward without the quiet blessing of the Marjaiya, or the top Shi'ite clerics who hold extraordinary influence in Iraq.
Da'wa securing more seats in parliament would boost Maliki's re-election prospects. The prime minister is facing pressure as violence rises and the quality of life of many Iraqis remains poor.
Politically, Maliki has alienated many of his allies by taking on insurgent groups and pushing for a stronger central government. Many parties and leaders have expressed concern about his growing power.
The government's crackdown on Shi'ite militias in 2008 helped Maliki win a broader backing that included Sunni Arabs and secularists. But it also alienated Shi'ite parties - particularly those loyal to anti-American Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militia was targeted in the raids.
Maliki's support among Sunni Arabs also declined after the government began arresting members of the Sunni Awakening Councils this year.
In addition, Maliki's push for a strong central government has alienated Kurds who enjoy considerable autonomy from Baghdad as well as Shi'ite parties such as the ISCI, who want power to lie with regional governments.
Whether Da'wa is with the INA or creates an independent list, Maliki is expected to campaign on his record of improving security - a platform that is likely to be challenged if violence increases.
August was the deadliest month in Iraq since July 2008 after more than 300 people were killed in attacks on government offices.
"Maliki is really at risk of losing his post," said Ahmed Kamel, a political sciences professor at the University of Baghdad.
He said the prime minister "disappointed Sunnis" and is facing challenges from Sadrists, whom he tried to appease during the recent provincial council election by pledging to release some of their fighters.
"He has lost his alliance with the Sadrists," Kamel said. "Now they aren't working with [Da'wa] in the provincial councils."
Sunni and Kurdish support could also prove crucial for Maliki if major Shi'ite parties do not back his re-election.
Abdullah Jafar, a retired political science professor, said Maliki should create his own alliance and try to win over Sunni tribal leaders - a tactic Jafar said the prime minister is employing.
"Maliki would be at risk of losing his prime minister's post if he joins the Shi'ite alliance," he said. "His chances will be better if he takes part in the elections with his own State of Law coalition."
Maliki will need the backing of Sunnis more than Kurds, he said.
While there is no indication that Da'wa will pair up with a major Sunni party, Maliki's relations with the powerful Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party appear to be improving after vice president Tariq al-Hashimi stepped down. Hashimi, a hardline Sunni leader, led a multi-sectarian alliance that tried to oust Maliki's government in 2006.
Ali al-Adib, a legislator and senior Da'wa party leader, said the Iraqi Islamic Party "has historically had relations with Da'wa. Some members of this party hurt its reputation, but it has returned to its roots."
A Da'wa party source who asked not to be named said Maliki may try to draw in other smaller Shi'ite parties "in order to compete with the ISCI's coalition".
The source said Da'wa may align with Asaib al-Haq, or the League of the Righteous, a Shi'ite extremist offshoot of Muqtada's militia that Maliki has sought to include in reconciliation efforts. Asaib al-Haq told the Associated Press last month that the government pledged to free all of its estimated 300 to 400 detainees on the condition that the group renounce violence.
Asaib al-Haq is accused of taking five British men hostage in Baghdad in 2007.
Nuri al-Badran, a candidate with the INA, said Iraqis were disappointed in the government. He maintained that all incumbents, including Maliki, risk losing power in the election.
"People's demands have changed," he said. "They want to be employed, they want services such as electricity and water and they want politicians who care about their lives. The Iraqi people are tired of the old faces and unfulfilled promises. They want a change."
Abeer Mohammed is an IWPR-trained journalist in Baghdad.