By breaking ranks with his ruling Shiite alliance ahead of general elections in January, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has taken a gamble that could make or break his rule, analysts say.
The premier’s strategy was thrown into focus after his former allies named their candidates for the upcoming poll, a list that spurred Maliki to declare he was opting for a broader-based, multi-confessional alliance.
“He is betting, rightly or wrongly, on his own strength and his dynamics to win, but the others are wagering that he will fail,” anthropologist Hosham Dawood, who specialises in Iraqi tribal affairs, told AFP.
The Shiite premier, who is determined to turn a new page in Iraq’s ethnically fractured political system, wants to create a coalition including tribal Sunni leaders as well as Shiite candidates.
He has been working on the plan for weeks, if not months, and is convinced it can succeed as it did in provincial elections seven months ago, when candidates he backed trumped his former allies in Shiite areas and Baghdad.
Maliki hopes his broad-based alliance, almost certain to be named the State of Law Coalition -- as it was in January’s polls -- can bridge the sectarian divide that has marred politics and security since the 2003 US-led invasion.
His former partners have banded together to form their own group, the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), which includes the influential Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) of Abdel Aziz Al-Hakim, who died in hospital in Iran last week after a long battle with cancer.
It also includes supporters of radical anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
The INA, which is now the leading Shiite alliance and the largest group in parliament, on August 24 published a list of election candidates which excluded Maliki and his allies.
“The (new) Shiite coalition is focused on containing him and weakening him,” Dawood said of Maliki. “They expect him to fail and are less concerned about charting their own strategy.
“But Maliki does not believe that his political future has been compromised even if he has faced serious security setbacks” in recent weeks, Dawood said.
Almost 100 people were killed and 600 others wounded on August 19 when massive twin truck bombings struck central Baghdad, outside the finance and foreign ministries.
The attacks marked the worst violence in Iraq in 18 months and came after US troops pulled out of urban centres at the end of June, ahead of a full withdrawal from the country at the end of 2011.
A local newspaper described the carnage as “Iraq’s September 11” -- a reference to the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.
Wayne White, a researcher at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, believes Maliki will tread a dangerous path as he strives to forge a multi-confessional alliance, particularly after the security setbacks.
He could win because of “weaknesses” in the Shiite camp, namely long-standing rivalry between the SIIC and Sadr movements, White said, but he stressed that Maliki must also deal with concerns from Kurds in the autonomous north as well as from Sunni tribal chiefs.
“He is in a delicate position with the Kurds and the Sunnis don’t trust him,” said White. “His coalition will be a dicey alliance, a complicated affair.
“He still has a chance to get elected but now there is more danger for him. Now there is a serious challenge. Most people thought he would win but now (after the bombings) it’s more 50/50.
“It is going to be harder,” White added.
Baghdad university professor Hamid Fadhel believes that Maliki will have to fine-tune his diplomatic skills if he wants to win the January vote.
The key, said the political sciences professor, is to strike an alliance with the Sunni tribal chiefs, with independents and with secular figures.
“Only then will he have a chance of succeeding,” said Fadhel.
Iraq’s proportional representation system means that even if Maliki’s candidates win constituencies, he will have to forge alliances to become prime minister.
According to Maliki adviser Ali al-Musawi, the premier “is not in any hurry to reveal his list” although “many political groups are ready to join him.”
Already Maliki has been buoyed by recent shows of support from Sunni groups and tribal leaders who are fighting Al-Qaeda militants in Anbar province, once a bastion of Sunni insurgency.
Maliki has drawn up a four-way strategy, according to Dawood.
“His aim is to marginalise Shiite rivals, win over the Sunni tribal chiefs, back Arab parties against Kurds in Kirkuk and Mosul and lead Americans into believing he is the only credible leader,” Dawood said.