Maliki at Risk in Coming Iraq Election
March 1, 2010 · Posted in NEWS
Monday, March 01, 2010By Steven Lee Myers, The New York Times

BAGHDAD — A few months ago, building on genuine if not universal popularity, Nouri al-Maliki appeared poised to win a second term as Iraq’s prime minister. Now, as Iraqis prepare to vote in parliamentary elections next Sunday, his path to another four years in office has become increasingly uncertain, his campaign erratic and, to some, deeply troubling.

Far from consolidating power in the authoritarian manner that has plagued Iraq’s history, Mr. Maliki risks losing it through the ballot box. In a region where the traditional exit from power has been “the coup or the coffin,” as one Western diplomat in Baghdad put it recently, the election has become a crucial test of Iraq’s post-invasion democracy, and of Mr. Maliki’s own fate.

How he wins — or perhaps more significantly, how he loses — will more than anything else determine the country’s course in the coming years as President Barack Obama carries out his promise to withdraw all American troops.

Even his own supporters acknowledge that Mr. Maliki now appears isolated, imperious and impetuous, his re-election prospects hurt by events out of his control and by others of his own making.

“I told him the other day, ‘You don’t have positions. You have reactions,’ ” said Izzat Shabander, an independent Shiite lawmaker who joined the prime minister’s electoral coalition and sounded as if he was having second thoughts.

Mr. Maliki, 59, could yet prevail. According to politicians and polls conducted by parties and American officials, Mr. Maliki’s coalition will very likely win a plurality of the new parliament’s 325 seats. But it is unlikely to be anywhere near a majority.

“The question was not whether they would win but by how much,” said Kenneth M. Pollack, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, referring to the confidence he heard in discussions in Baghdad last year with Mr. Maliki’s aides. “At this point, they’re fighting for their lives.”

Tellingly, Mr. Maliki has delivered most of his campaign speeches in the south, where he is competing for Shiite votes against a largely Shiite coalition that after the 2005 election helped select him as prime minister.

When he met with tribal leaders from Salahuddin on Friday, he held the event in Baghdad rather than traveling to the largely Sunni province.

In his remarks then, Mr. Maliki reprised his claims to have restored security and promised to improve governance. He then, speaking most forcefully, denounced not only terrorists — or Baathists, an epithet that he uses interchangeably — but also politicians who advanced their cause through democratic means. He called them “bats who live only in the darkness.”

“Now,” he went on, “they want to get back through the windows, through the doors, through the elections.”

Amid oversize posters of him with a raised fist, Mr. Maliki vowed not to let it happen. “We worked hard to build the state,” he said. “We will not lose it to the whims and caprices of those who want to seize power.”

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