BAGHDAD — After two years in office, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has managed only in the past two months to stamp a semblance of authority in this unwieldy nation with bold crackdowns on Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents in Baghdad, Basra and the north.
The progress has aided in the Shiite prime minister's political rehabilitation, quieting critics at home who have seen him as ineffective, indifferent to corruption or biased toward Shiite interests.
It also has won him praise from American officials and the military, only months after some in the United States were calling for him to be replaced for failing to achieve political benchmarks. His current political buoyancy also comes in no small part from an overall drop in violence — the U.S. military said that last week it recorded the lowest number of attacks since April 2004.
But Maliki is not out of the woods yet. Security gains from crackdowns he has overseen remain fragile and could quickly unravel, sparking new instability.
Followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have stepped up their rhetoric against Maliki in recent days, accusing him of trying to eliminate them — straining a truce with Sadr's Mahdi Army militia that has been key to success in Sadr City and Basra.
The goodwill Maliki has created also has yet to translate into concrete gains in reconciliation between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. A deal still has not been sealed on returning Sunni Arab rivals to his government or on passing a crucial law on sharing oil wealth, blocked in part by his Kurdish allies.
Reconciliation will be key as Maliki faces the potentially divisive political events that loom ahead — like provincial elections expected in November and negotiations over a long-term presence of U.S. forces.
Maliki also has to face the daunting tasks of reducing popular discontent over services, employment and crime. Better-than-expected oil income — more than $60-billion this year — should enable him to cushion some of the hardship Iraqis face.
Maliki became Iraq's longest-serving prime minister since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein, marking his two-year anniversary on Tuesday.
Upcoming elections hold dangers: Maliki has spoken of banning parties with militias from running, a move that would anger the Sadrists.
A new outbreak of violence with the Mahdi Army could throw everything back into turmoil and strain what the U.S. military says is an improved performance by Iraqi forces. The militia fought with tenacity in Sadr City and Basra, while the Iraqi army and police suffered the embarrassment of about 1,000 cases of desertions in Basra.
Al-Qaida and Sunni insurgents are also not out of the picture. The offensive against them in Mosul was publicized by the government as early as January, months ahead of its launch, giving the terror network's fighters time to flee and regroup elsewhere.