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Return of Iraq's al-Maliki points to PM's tenacity

Barely five years ago, mentioning Nouri al-Maliki's name would have stirred little or no interest in Iraq's corridors of power. Since then, he's been maligned by Sunnis for his hard-line religious stance and by fellow Shiites for a decision to crack down on militia violence.

world Updated: Nov 12, 2010 12:24 IST

Barely five years ago, mentioning Nouri al-Maliki's name would have stirred little or no interest in Iraq's corridors of power. Since then, he's been maligned by Sunnis for his hard-line religious stance and by fellow Shiites for a decision to crack down on militia violence.

Now, the dour-looking former schoolteacher will have four more years as prime minister of Iraq.

Al-Maliki was formally asked to put together a new government late on Thursday, despite a walkout by a Sunni-backed coalition during a tumultuous parliamentary session that cast doubt on an agreement aimed at resolving an eight-month political impasse.

Shiite and Kurdish lawmakers went ahead with a vote to re-elect President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, despite the absence of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc.

Talabani in turn made the request to al-Maliki, who now has 30 days to submit Cabinet selections. The story of al-Maliki's meteoric political rise speaks to the unpredictability of Iraq's post-Saddam Hussein politics and the tenacity of a politician who lost an election but held on to power. Even his rivals conceded that the Shiite leader had outmaneuvered them.

"He was able to rally a diverse array of blocs and political groups around him, including past enemies," said Kazim al-Shimmari, a lawmaker from the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc, whose 91 seats in the legislature are two more than those won by al-Maliki's coalition in the March 7 election.

"Al-Maliki's manoeuvers were deft and he was very clever in taking advantage of the mistakes made by our bloc." Al-Maliki, a 60-year-old Shiite with a master's degree in Arabic literature and a steely demeanor, rose to power in 2006 as a compromise candidate backed by radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, but it soon became obvious that the politician was no pushover.

He was accused by many Sunnis of having a sectarian slant and seeking to punish the minority Islamic sect for Saddam Hussein's repression of Shiites.

That reputation was reinforced by widespread abuse and torture at the hands of the mainly Shiite government security forces seeking to crack down on a rampant Sunni insurgency. Ironically, al-Maliki later alienated one of his main Shiite supporters when he backed US-Iraqi offensives against al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia and ordered the arrest of hundreds of fighters loyal to the cleric.

Meanwhile, he developed a close relationship with George W Bush, holding weekly videoconferences with the American president that have not been continued by the Obama administration.

While al-Maliki has insisted he wants national unity among Iraq's three main groups, Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, his successful bid to stay in power threatens to further alienate Sunnis, who had thrown their support behind a secular Shiite candidate, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

Al-Maliki was born in June 1950 in a village near the Shiite city of Hillah south of Baghdad. A devout Shiite, he fled Saddam's regime in 1979, a year before being sentenced to death in absentia for his membership in the Dawa Party.

He lived in exile in Iran and Syria. While in Syria, he quickly rose through the Dawa Party ranks to become the party's chief representative there. He returned to Iraq soon after the 2003 US-led invasion and served as an adviser to his predecessor, former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. He then won the top post after al-Jaafari failed to secure a second term in office in the face of opposition from fellow Shiite parties, including the Sadrists, and the Kurds.

Al-Maliki became a hero in the eyes of many Shiites when he signed off on Saddam's execution on the eve of the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha in December 2006. But the move infuriated Sunnis after Shiites present at the hanging taunted the ousted dictator as he went to the gallows.

In 2009, following the military offensives that helped reduce violence, al-Maliki's party scored an astonishing victory in nationwide local elections that exposed the weakness of his Shiite rivals.

Al-Maliki's political opportunism served him well. In the run-up to the vote, he stood by as a Shiite-led committee mandated with keeping Saddam loyalists out of public office disqualified dozens of Sunni election candidates. Then he focused on negotiating with potential allies, including former enemies and harsh critics, to devalue the surprise victory of the Iraqiya bloc led by secular Shiite Ayad Allawi.

He successfully demanded a recount in Baghdad and obtained a court ruling that the mandate to form a government goes to the largest bloc of parties, rather than the single party that emerges with the largest number of seats in the new legislature.

"Al-Maliki's success cannot be entirely attributed to clever political maneuvers; rather, it was largely to do with the use of his powerful position as the current prime minister," political analyst Kazim al-Muqdadi said, citing the release of Sadrist detainees to win the support of their political leaders. "That position enabled him to move freely and offer rewards for blocs in exchange for their support."

"The next government is a government of political deals, exactly like the old one," said Yassin al-Mutlaq, a Sunni lawmaker. "So, I do not think that there will be a big change in the performance of the new government and al-Maliki will keep on his old policies."

First Published: Nov 12, 2010 12:22 IST