World Bulletin/News Desk
A casual wave to fellow diners in a Baghdad restaurant in 2008 sealed Nouri al-Maliki's reputation as the man who restored a degree of normality to a city that civil war had nearly destroyed.
Now he has gone out again among the people, strolling around the city to prove he is still attuned to their problems as he lobbied voters to give him a third term as prime minister when they cast their ballots in elections on Wednesday.
"These people standing outside waiting in the sun are suffering," he thundered at a vehicle registration office during the televised walkabout last month. "People in their offices with air conditioners over their heads don't feel their discomfort."
The highest levels of violence since Maliki took on the militias in 2008 are undermining his message. He still leads the election field, but his opponents are circling and could unseat him, if they can overcome considerable differences.
A year-long offensive Sunni militants is moving ever closer to the capital and Shi'ite militia, often teamed with security forces, are taking revenge on Sunni communities, diminishing the stature of Maliki's Shi'ite-led government.
In March alone 180 civilians were killed and 477 were wounded in Baghdad among more than 2,000 killed across Iraq so far this year.
Normally seen behind closed doors and a wall of security, Maliki's usual message is vengeance for the bombings that have again become a regular feature of Iraqi life and criticism of political opponents, who he says are set on undermining him.
His concentration of power over the past eight years - he holds the defence, interior and security portfolios as well as the premiership - gives him a clear electoral advantage, as does the offensive against the Sunni militants he launched last year.
But it has also made him enemies among Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders alike and his rivals say they are prepared to put sectarian differences behind them to unseat him.
"BEST OF THE WORST"
Maliki portrays himself as preventing Sunni extremists in Iraq's Anbar province and neighboring Syria from hurting the Shi'ites, a sharp contrast with his non-sectarian message at the last election in March 2010, a year and a half before U.S. troops withdrew.
His old language promising national unity has long since disappeared.
In a speech this month, Maliki accused his political foes of undermining the fight in Anbar that been at a stalemate for months. Some in Iraqi security estimate more than a thousand Shi'ite troops have been killed and thousands have deserted from the army, as regular Shi'ite soldiers complain their leadership has not provided them with the equipment and training to win.
"It is so saddening that, at the time our army faces these killers and criminals, it is being stabbed in the back by some politicians who accuse the army of lacking principles," Maliki said.
Iraqis, including from the Shi'ite majority, might wish for another leader, but many cannot imagine a replacement. Maliki is, in their words "the best of the worst".
His aides say the war against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Anbar province to the west of Baghdad is working to Maliki's advantage.
"Before Anbar, the Shi'ites weren't happy with public services and Maliki was portrayed as weak. After Anbar, people see him as a strongman. They think he is right to use force against these people. There is a sectarian flavor to it," said one of his senior advisers.
A Shi'ite tribal leader from northern Baghdad warned last week that any successor would have to rebuild a military leadership dependent on Maliki, with ISIL just 16 miles (26 km) from Baghdad, almost within reach of Shiite neighborhoods.
Al-Muwatin, or the Citizen, which groups two of his longtime rivals, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the movement of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada Sadr, say if Maliki stays, Iraq could fall apart. They are hoping a fragmented vote will give them the upper hand.
One of their frontrunners is Bayan Jabor, a former interior minister who Sunnis say allowed militias to run death squads under police cover in 2005 - a charge he refutes.
Jabor says Maliki has mismanaged the war, arguing that the prime minister's moment of greatness after he ended the civil war in 2008 has long passed.
"We are now in 2014 and we can't go back eight years," Jabr told Reuters. "I believe that the future of Iraq, under the current government's policies, will be fragmentation."
Maliki' Kurdish and Sunni opponents also nurse eight years of grievances against him.
They fault him for not sharing power with them in his second term after it had been agreed they were supposed to apportion the defense, interior and intelligence apparatus.
They are angry at his chasing his Sunni vice president and a finance minister out of Iraq with arrest warrants since U.S. troops left Iraq at the end of 2011.
Most of his rivals joined a vote of no confidence against him in 2012. It failed, but now they have regrouped, resentful of the power acquired by a man chosen in 2006 as a weak compromise candidate who everyone thought would be pliable.
There are indications Maliki's popularity as the Shi'ites' protector is starting to fray in the south, where they are the largest population. A crowd chanted "liar, liar" to Maliki in Nasiriya over a promise to build more housing.
Most worrying for the prime minister is that, after years of strain, Iraq's most senior Shiite clerics are starting to speak out against him.
Grand Ayatollah Basheer Najafi, one of the four most senior clerics, said at the weekend his followers should not vote for Maliki, due to the failed war effort in Anbar and corruption allegations swirling around his administration.
Millions look to guidance from the clergy but Najafi's influence is the least of the grand ayatollahs.
Up to now, Maliki has always beaten the odds - so much so, in fact, that some Iraqi politicians have dubbed him "the luckiest man".
He has relied on the fact he is the known quantity in a chaotic nation to hold on to power. This time, neither the United States nor Iran have signaled their approval or rejection of Maliki. Each puts a premium on stability and is likely to support whoever it feels can ensure the situation rapidly calms.
The senior Maliki adviser predicted the premier's share of parliament seats would likely jump to 90 from the 70 that his advisers were predicting before the Anbar offensive.
As the election approaches, observers say ordinary Iraqis are becoming aware of the failures of the Anbar campaign. But with no reliable opinion polls, it remains a mystery how they will vote.
VIOLENCE BETWEEN KURDISH GROUPS?
Celebratory gunfire broke out in Iraq's Kurdish north as the octogenarian was shown on television raising an ink-stained finger after casting his vote thousands of miles away in Germany.
The man was Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and his silent appearance at an early ballot for the election due at home on Wednesday was the first footage of him since he suffered a stroke late in 2012 and was flown abroad for medical treatment.
In Sulaimaniyah, capital of the province of the same name where his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) is headquartered, cars blared their horns and people, some wearing T-shirts printed with Talabani's face, danced on the streets.
Cause for festivities may be short-lived. Wednesday's election marks a new round in an internal power struggle that risks turning violent and skewing the balance of power in Kurdistan between influential neighbours Iran and Turkey.
The parliamentary vote is being contested as bitterly within each of Iraq's ethnic and sectarian constituencies as between them -- if not more so.
Among the Kurds, long at odds with Baghdad and in charge of their own quasi-state in the north of the country, rivalries have prevented the formation of a government more than seven months after elections in the oil-rich enclave.
This election, amounts, for them, to a referendum on Talabani's PUK, left rudderless and internally riven without the ailing statesman, known affectionately as "dear uncle".
The PUK's fading star has upset the region's time-worn political order, raising concerns about stability, particularly in Sulaimaniyah province, which Talabani's party has controlled since Kurdistan gained autonomy more than three decades ago.
Last week, gunmen waving the PUK's green flag drove past a branch of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) on Sulaimaniyah's main street and opened fire. The mayor said "dark hands" were behind the incident, in which there were no casualties.
Member of parliament Ari Harsin later stood guard at the scene with a machine gun slung over his shoulder. "I took up arms because no-one is in charge of Suleimaniyah," he said in a television interview. "I am defending democracy".
The shooting took place just days after an agreement was signed to finally form a new cabinet that would sideline the PUK, which has shared power with the KDP for almost a decade but fell to third place at the polls last September.
It was overtaken by opposition party Gorran (Change), which grew out of a former wing of the PUK and quickly gained popularity among Kurds fed up with the corruption of the region's traditional ruling elites.
In this election, the PUK is hoping to regain stature through Kirkuk - an ethnically mixed city where the party enjoys support outside the formal boundary of Kurdistan. That would give the PUK much-needed leverage in ongoing negotiations over government formation.
"They lost the (local) election and they must accept it," said the head of Gorran's electoral list Aram Sheikh Mohammed at the party's hilltop headquarters in Suleimaniyah, from an office that commands a view of the mountains surrounding the city.
"The PUK needs to wake up: they are still in a deep sleep".
Formed at a cafe in the Syrian capital Damascus in 1975, the PUK gathered disparate left-leaning Kurdish groups under its umbrella as an alternative to the KDP, which revolves around the Barzani tribe and dominates the region's other two provinces.
With no clear chain of command, cracks in the PUK have widened and the party is now incapacitated by competition between different factions, one of which is led by the wife of its infirm leader. But talk of its demise may be premature.
In Sulaimaniyah, the PUK's financial and military muscle is still unrivalled. The party has its own security apparatus, "peshmerga" fighting force, and a vast network of patronage built around a business empire that includes fuel trading and real estate.
Faced with being left out in the cold, some members of the PUK have made veiled threats, reminding people they owe allegiance to political parties over and above the institutions of the relatively young Kurdish regional government.
But if the PUK's patronage system begins to unwind, loyalties could shift. Several members of the PUK have already jumped ship and joined the KDP in recent weeks.
"It's never going to simply slide away into nothing quietly," said Gareth Stansfield, Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).
"It could change with more defections from the party to others; it could see some form of reunion with Gorran, as seemed to be happening before Talabani's illness; or it could fail catastrophically, and by that I mean a decline into conflict."
The acid test may be provincial elections, to be held this week alongside the Iraqi national vote, but in Kurdistan alone, and for the first time since the birth of Gorran, which could come out on top.
"It's difficult to envisage how they will behave," said a source close to decision-makers in all three main parties. "I don't think any party wants to go as far as confrontation."
For now, they are waging war through the media. PUK outlets have sought to smear Gorran's candidate for governor by publishing poems he wrote for a newspaper of the Baath party of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein, who presided over the mass killing of Kurds in the 1980s.
But many worry there is a potential for conflict in a region where many men own firearms and the older generation fought a guerilla war against Saddam's forces before turning their weapons on each other.
"Kurds don't point fingers, we point guns," the head of Kurdistan's security council Masrour Barzani told a U.S. diplomat in 2009 during a discussion about elections, according to a cable released by anti-secrecy site Wikileaks.
Officials in the KDP are worried about the PUK's implosion at a time when insurgents are gaining ground in the rest of Iraq, and across the border in Syria, warning that security in Suleimaniyah is a "red line".
A rare bombing in the regional capital Arbil days after the election in September has been followed by several smaller attacks in Sulaimaniyah. Sticky bombs were attached to the vehicles of two officers and an explosive device was detonated outside the house of a colonel.
The head of the security services in Sulaimaniyah took umbrage at the suggestion the province was not secure, and said his men had recently managed to thwart an attack by militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The PUK's health is also of concern for Iran, which shares a long border with Suleimaniyah province and has historically been close to Talabani and his party, counteracting Turkey's growing influence over the KDP.
"Iran is very, very concerned about the future of the PUK," said a senior KDP official on condition of anonymity. "Talabani is out of the picture, but the PUK has some institutions Iran needs".
As early as 2008, Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani fretted about PUK succession, predicting "chaos" could follow Talabani's exit and create opportunities for Iran to meddle more in Sulaimaniyah, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks.
Since the September election, PUK leaders have gone to Tehran for talks, and Iranian officials have visited Kurdistan to lobby on behalf of the ailing party and preserve its own interests in the region.
"It's a dangerous neighbourhood," said another KDP source who declined to be named. "They (our detractors) can easily destabilise us, especially if we are not united".Last Mod: 29 Nisan 2014, 10:28