Nuri Kamal al-Maliki
Johan Spanner/Polaris, for The New York TimesUpdated June 29, 2009


Nuri Kamal al-Maliki was no one's first choice to be Iraq's first permanent prime minister. He entered office overshadowed by other leaders with bigger followings and well-armed militias, and six months into his term top American officials worried that he was not up to the job. But by the end of 2008, the worry being expressed by his Iraqi rivals was whether Mr. Maliki was on his way to becoming a new strongman. Even some of his allies expressed fear of a return to the sway of a single leader, arbitrary and bloodthirsty, with power concentrated in Baghdad.

The anger at Mr. Maliki from the political class has been strong enough that he has twice narrowly missed being voted out of office, in December 2008 and in late 2007. He survived both efforts with American support, primarily because his opponents could not agree on a replacement. His actions have been more popular with the public at large: polling in early 2009 suggested that he had the most favorable ratings of any Iraqi politician, and in provincial elections held in early February his Dawa party emerged as the clear winner.

If any single moment can be said to have been the turning point for Mr. Maliki, it was one that appeared at first to be a disaster: his decision in March 2008 to order the Iraqi army into Basra, the southern Shiite city that was a stronghold of Moktada al-Sadr, the radical cleric who had been Mr. Maliki's biggest supporter before becoming an ardent foe. The assault, launched with no warning to the American military, faltered in embarrassing fashion, with many officers deserting in the face of fire from the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to Mr. Sadr. Iran stepped in and brokered a cease-fire that appeared to be on Mr. Sadr’s terms. But in the weeks that followed the army took firm control of Basra.

Mr. Maliki followed up with an offensive to take control of Sadr City in Baghdad, the huge slum that had been Mr. Sadr's stronghold, and pushed it through weeks of bloody, door to door fighting. Facing a determined Iraqi Army backed by American troops and air power, Mr. Sadr struck a deal that allowed the government forces to take control of what had been his state-within-a-state, handing Mr. Maliki the biggest victory of his term.

Since then, Mr. Maliki has reshuffled military commanders and created two handpicked military forces that report primarily to him as the commander in chief rather than to the Interior or Defense Ministries. He has also created tribal councils across the country that are directly linked to his office, which critics fear are stalking-horses to extend the reach of the Dawa Party and make gains in the provincial elections at the expense of his rivals. The councils are often financed by the government and organized by local Dawa members. Mr. Maliki’s actions seem prompted by fears of another sort, ones born of his history as a dissident and exile: that the outlawed Baath Party he fought for so many years will regroup and oust him, particularly as the American forces that have supported him begin to withdraw.

Mr. Maliki's pledges to reconcile with some of the most ardent opponents of his government, such as former Baath party members, have given way to what some say is a hardening sectarianism that threatens to stoke already simmering political tensions and rising anger over a recent spate of bombings aimed at Shiites.

The dirt streets and the crumbling brick houses of Janajuh, Mr. Maliki’s home village, are a reminder of how far he has come. Lying along a muddy irrigation canal between the southern cities of Karbala and Hilla, it has one relatively new building, a school, but everything else is simple brick weathered gray by the mud of winter and the dust of summer. The streets are barely wide enough to accommodate cars, and the traffic more often consists of women leading donkeys hauling hay and firewood.

Early Life and Rise to Power
Mr. Maliki was born in 1950, the son of a government employee and the grandson of a former education minister during the monarchy. By the time he was an adolescent he was bicycling along the gravel roads to Hindiya, the nearest town of any size, to go to school, said Shaker Jabber Abdul Hussain al Maliki, a cousin who still lives in Janajuh.

He joined the Dawa Party in college. At the time, the Islamist party, founded by an uncle of the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr, was already largely underground. Saddam Hussein saw its religious philosophy and predominantly Shiite membership as a threat. In 1979, shortly after he seized power, Mr. Hussein ordered the arrests of all Dawa Party members nationwide. In Mr. Maliki’s home district alone, at least 70 men were detained; most were never seen again.

Mr. Maliki was one of fewer than five who escaped. He took refuge in Syria, moved to Iran and then returned to Syria.

While Shiite Islamist parties like Dawa are often accused of being close to Iran, Mr. Maliki saw the Iranians as neighbors but not always friends, his associates said. Dawa’s exiles were treated as “unwelcome guests” in Iran, said Sami Alaskary, a member of Parliament and a close friend of the prime minister.

He recalled one occasion when Mr. Maliki sought permission from the Iranians to send a Dawa operative across the border to Iraq. After Mr. Maliki had waited for weeks, an Iranian official called to say that the answer was ready but that Mr. Maliki needed to pick it up at the border office. It was winter and bitter cold, but he made the 14-hour drive there. When he arrived, the paper said: “Permission denied.” “That person who called him to tell him the answer was ready, he knew it was a rejection but he didn’t tell him; he did it to humiliate him,” Mr. Alaskary said.

Mr. Maliki did not return to Iraq until the American-led invasion of 2003. When he was chosen as prime minister in April 2006, he was not a familiar figure to the general public, and he appeared stiff and nervous in his first press conference. He had served as a deputy leader in the Dawa Party and was picked only after months of wrangling in which Kurdish and Sunni officials combined to block the renomination of the interim prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the Dawa leader.

Mr. Jaafari had earned a reputation as being indecisive, and had angered Kurdish and Sunni leaders by seeming to favor Shiite interests too much. Mr. Maliki's reputation was as someone more direct and forceful, and he stressed during his initial appearance a determination not to favor his sect above others.

But the key votes in the caucus of Shiite parties that chose him to be Mr. Jaafari's successor were cast by Mr. Sadr, who thereby thwarted the ambitions of his longtime rival, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the political party now known as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

As 2006 dragged bloodily on, American commanders expressed frustration with Mr. Maliki, saying that he appeared to be protecting the Mahdi Army and other militias. Mr. Maliki, for his part, lashed out at American attempts to force him to commit himself to a timetable for progress on an American-dictated set of benchmarks.

In January 2007, Mr. Maliki and Mr. Bush appeared to reach an understanding that allowed for the American president to proceed with an increase in combat troops, and American commanders reported less interference from the government. Over the course of the spring Mr. Maliki weathered a boycott of his government by Mr. Sadr's party, who protested his cooperation with the U.S., and open maneuvering by Mr. Hakim to form a new government in an alliance with Kurds and moderate Sunnis. Eventually, Mr. Maliki and Mr. Hakim appeared to reach an understanding, although one that has frayed regularly.

At the same time, Mr. Maliki struggled to meet milestones for progress on political reconciliation set out by the U.S., and American officials, while still backing him in disputes with other parties, criticized his government as corrupt and inefficient. Mr. Maliki responded by asserting his independence, first by supporting a timeline for the withdrawal of American troops that was close to that advocated by Barack Obama as a presidential candidate, and then by forcing Washington to make significant concessions in return for a Status of Forces agreement that would allow U.S. forces to remain in the country after the end of 2008.

As a June 30, 2009 deadline approached, Maliki called the impending withdrawal of American combat troops from Iraq's cities a "great victory," a repulsion of foreign occupiers he compared to the rebellion against British troops in 1920.