Iraq elections: Security-obsessed Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, could be saved by the growing threat of Sunni insurrection

He could have expected a tough time at the polls this week as citizens tire of corruption and clerics turn against him. But the rise of Isis may save the strongman

Will Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki survive tomorrow’s election? Quite likely. Will Iraq survive it as a country? Here the answer is much more doubtful. Eight years after Mr Maliki first took office, al-Qa’ida-type fighters are at the gates of Baghdad – or about 16 miles from the city centre to be more precise.

Over the last year, almost every week has brought news of loss of government control over Sunni majority provinces and of savage bombings the length and breadth of Iraq. Two bombs in a vegetable market in al-Saadiyah, a town 90 miles north east of Baghdad, killed 17 people today and wounded 42. One bomb was at the centre and another at the exit to kill people fleeing the first blast.

A day earlier, a suicide bomber had blown himself up killing 25 people in the largely Kurdish town of Khanaqin as Iraq’s Kurdish President Jalal al-Talabani, previously in a coma in a hospital in Germany after a stroke, cast his vote.

The violence has got far worse in Iraq over the last year. A protest movement among the Iraqi Sunni, which began at the end of 2012, has mutated into an armed uprising. The Iraqi Sunni community, a fifth of Iraqis, who lost power to a Shia-Kurdish alliance after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by the US invasion in 2003, have been emboldened by the revolt of the Sunni in Syria. Many are convinced that they have no choice but to fight.

Since the start the year the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) have taken control of Fallujah 40 miles west of Baghdad. Though they share power with other groups, they are being more cautious than in the past in enforcing a fundamentalist Islamic life style such as obligatory beards for men and a ban on cigarette smoking.

The government in Baghdad has been trying to turn the tribes against them as the Americans did in 2006-7, but the alienation of the Sunni community as a whole and the military weakness of the government may be too great for this strategy to succeed today.

Isis and its allies control much of Anbar, Mosul and Salahudin provinces as well as having a strong presence in Diyala and Kirkuk. They hold the Fallujah dam in the Euphrates and have flooded areas downstream, leading to 100,000 people leaving the Abu Ghraib district just west of the capital.

Isis has also blown a main oil pipeline at Baiji, heavily polluting the Tigris River. Government forces are believed to have suffered 5,000 casualties including over 1,000 dead in the struggle for Anbar this year. Many government units are depleted by desertion, with soldiers complaining that they are short of food, ammunition and fuel because money to pay for them has been embezzled by their officers.

These waves of disastrous news would weaken many governments, but in the case of Mr Maliki it may serve to strengthen him at the polls. He can present himself as the saviour of the Shia majority who may feel he remains their leader against an escalating Sunni counter-revolution.

A member of his State of Law Alliance estimated the battles in Anbar over the last three months might increase the number of seats won by Mr Maliki from 70 to 90 seats in a 328-member chamber.

The outcome of the election is particularly uncertain because there are no reliable opinion polls. Mr Maliki is expected to benefit from the vote by the security forces that number 1.5 million. They are at the centre of a web of patronage overseen by the Prime Minister, who can also spend $100bn in oil revenues.

At the same time there is great discontent among the Shia over the all-embracing corruption of the government machinery and its inability to provide services.

If the threat from the Sunni insurgency had not increased, this would have cost Mr Maliki many votes and might yet do so. Other Shia parties such as the followers of the populist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq want him out. The senior clergy of the Shia, who have great influence, have also indicated that they do not want to see Mr Maliki serve a third term.

But Mr Maliki has been quick to accuse his critics of not fully opposing the Sunni uprising. He said: “It is so saddening that at the time our army is facing these killers and criminals, it is being stabbed in the back by some politicians.”

If there is no decisive outcome to the election, there are likely to be prolonged negotiations, as happened after the last election in 2010. At that time, Mr Maliki ended up controlling the security ministries while others got a share in other parts of government.

Other countries, notably Iran and the US, will play a role as before in deciding Mr Maliki’s future. While neither are eager to see him remain Prime Minister, they also may not be able to see any alternative to him. Neither the Iranians nor the Americans want to see the Syrian crisis wholly destabilise Iraq, though it may be too late to stop this.

Poll position: The candidates

Islamic Dawa Party

The current Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki (above), is the frontrunner in the Iraqi elections. He is the secretary-general of the Islamic Dawa Party. His opponents accuse him of being authoritarian and too pro-Shia, but he has presented himself as the only candidate capable of defeating al-Qa’ida. (Picture credit: Getty)

The Shia blocs

The main threat to Mr Maliki comes from the other Shia blocs. One is represented by The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and its leader Ammar Hakim (above) and the other is the Ahrar bloc – weakened since its leading figure, Moqtada Sadr, a Shia cleric whose Mehdi Army fought US troops, retired. (AFP/Getty)


National Accord Party

After winning elections in 2010 with his secular Iraqiya List but failed to form a government, Mr Maliki’s former rival Ayad Allawi (above), an ex-prime minister and leader of the Iraqi National Accord Party, poses little threat this year. Mr Allawi, a Shia, has now formed the Wataniya bloc to run in the elections and bring Mr Maliki’s sectarian policies to an end. The party aims to secure a secular future for Iraq. (AP)

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