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Iraq’s Maliki finds himself without political backing

Prime minister abandoned as security erodes

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (right) spoke during a visit yesterday to Iraqi families affected by bomb blasts in Baghdad. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (right) spoke during a visit yesterday to Iraqi families affected by bomb blasts in Baghdad. (Reuters/ Saad Shalash)
By Kim Gamel and Qassim Abdul-Zahra
Associated Press / August 25, 2009

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BAGHDAD - The Iranian-backed Shi’ite parties that helped propel Iraq’s prime minister into power three years ago dumped him yesterday as their candidate for reelection, forming a new alliance to contest the January vote.

The move dealt a blow to Nouri al-Maliki’s chances to keep his job next year and set the stage for a showdown between competing factions in the Shi’ite coalition that has dominated Iraq’s government since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Maliki now faces pressure to make a deal with minority Sunni parties to strengthen his position. Because his Dawa party is relatively small, he has not been able to rely on a loyal political base. Instead, he has developed a reputation as a strong leader by crushing militias loyal to anti-American Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Baghdad and in the southern city of Basra.

The Shi’ite prime minister’s efforts to win public confidence by portraying himself as a champion of security have taken a battering in recent weeks. A wave of horrific bombings has called into question the government’s ability to protect the Iraqi people two months after most US forces pulled out of urban areas.

In the latest violence, bombs attached to two buses en route from Baghdad exploded less than an hour apart near the mainly Shi’ite city of Kut yesterday, killing at least 11 people and wounding 20, police and hospital officials said. Local police chief Brigadier General Raed Shakir Jawdat said the explosives were detonated with timers.

Yesterday’s political announcement - made with fanfare at a news conference - represents a major realignment.

The new bloc, called the Iraqi National Alliance, will include the largest Shi’ite party, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, or SIIC, and al-Sadr’s bloc, which both have close ties to Tehran.

Although some small Sunni and secular parties are joining the alliance, many Sunnis consider the Supreme Council as little more than an instrument of Shi’ite Iran.

If the alliance does well in the Jan. 16 vote, Tehran could gain deeper influence in Iraq as US forces pull back, with a full American withdrawal planned by the end of 2011.

Maliki’s Dawa Party also has close ties to Iran, but the prime minister has tried in recent years to persuade Tehran to stop interfering in Iraq. Iran is accused of supporting Shi’ite militias, despite its denials of the allegations.

Maliki, who took office in May 2006 with the blessing of the Supreme Council and the Sadrists, had become increasingly assertive as his popularity had grown with a sharp decline in violence. He has taken on the Americans, the Iranians, the Sunnis, and fellow Shi’ites alike.

His loyalists ousted the Supreme Council from control of the oil-rich southern Shi’ite heartland in provincial elections earlier this year, raising concern among other Shi’ite politicians that internal divisions could cost them seats to Sunnis in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

But the unrelenting explosions - including two suicide truck bombings against the foreign and finance ministries that killed scores last week - have weakened his position at a crucial time.

He stayed out of the new alliance because leaders refused to guarantee him the prime minister’s spot, officials said.

Rumored possibilities for the job include new alliance members ex-Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, current Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, and even former Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, a one-time Pentagon favorite.