BAGHDAD — Since taking office in 2006, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has defied expectations, proving to be a canny and often bold leader who has transformed himself from a virtual unknown into possibly the single most popular politician in Iraq.
Yet in the process, he has alienated most of Iraq's other political leaders, to the extent that he is going to have a tough time holding onto his job after Sunday's elections, in which Iraqis will vote for a new parliament that will in turn choose a new government.
It is a crucial election. Whatever government emerges from the poll will determine Iraq's future beyond the scheduled final departure of U.S. troops in 2011 — and should the election not go well, there is a chance the U.S. military will seek to delay the withdrawal of combat troops due to take place by August.
It is also an election whose result is almost impossible to predict, with the eventual outcome likely to be decided not so much by voters as by the alliances that are struck after the ballots are counted.
And that's how Maliki could fail, even if his political slate succeeds in winning more seats than any other. Opinion polls are notoriously unreliable, but they tend to back up the conclusion of last year's provincial elections that Maliki is still more popular than any other politician in Iraq, with most of his support among the Shiite majority.
He is widely credited with the security gains that have brought a measure of normalcy to much of the country after the vicious sectarian war between Shiite and Sunni Arabs triggered by the last election. But such is the fragmentation of Iraq's political landscape that no one slate can possibly hope to win a majority.
The unified Shiite bloc that swept the vote in the last election has split into two camps: Maliki's State of Law coalition, which attempts to portray itself as non-sectarian, and the more sectarian Iraqi National Alliance.
The Iraqiya bloc headed by secular Shiite Ayad Allawi, who was America's choice to lead the first post-occupation Iraqi government, is the favorite to pick up the Sunni Arab and secularist vote, but it will face competition from the Sunni religious Iraqi Accordance and the Iraq Unity Alliance, a new coalition headed by Shiite Interior Minister Jawad Bolani and Sunni Awakening leader Ahmed Abu Risha. Even the main Kurdish Alliance that emerged as the kingmaker in the last parliament is confronting a challenge — from the breakaway Kurdish Goran, or Change Party.
Perhaps the only issue on which these disparate groups agree is their desire to replace Maliki as prime minister, said Mowaffek al-Rubaie, Maliki's former national security adviser who is running as a candidate with the rival Shiite alliance.
"Anti-Maliki-ism will unite us," he said. "There is a lot of strong opposition to Maliki personally."
Maliki's defenders say it is precisely the qualities that have alienated the political elite which have made him popular on the streets. By ordering the Iraqi army to take on Shiite militias in 2008, a move that cemented his stature among ordinary people, he alienated the powerful Sadrist movement. His Arab nationalist rhetoric also appeals to many ordinary Iraqis, but has offended his one-time Kurdish allies.
His detractors describe him otherwise. Kurdish leaders have compared him to Saddam Hussein, whose Sunni-dominated regime ruled with an iron fist until he was toppled in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Sunnis remain deeply suspicious of his nonsectarian credentials, and point to his government's role in widespread arrests of Sunnis, while many Shiites decry what they see as his attempts to consolidate power in his own hands.
If not Maliki, then who? That's something no one seems prepared to predict. Potential candidates include Adel Abdul Mahdi, a longtime American favorite from the Shiite alliance; former prime minister Allawi; and even perhaps Ahmad Chalabi, the mercurial one-time Pentagon protege who hopes to emerge as a compromise candidate.
Given the fierce political rivalries, it is possible that the factions will settle on a complete unknown — in the same way that Maliki was plucked from relative obscurity to head the last government after the chosen Shiite nominee from his party, former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari, was vetoed by the Kurds and the U.S.
Just as likely is a deadlock, says Kenneth Pollack, director of the Saban Center at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, in which the State of Law, the Shiite alliance, Iraqiya and the Kurdish alliance win a roughly equal number of seats, then fall to bickering amongst themselves.