After Maliki, Few Good Alternatives

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Khalid Mohammed / AP

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, center-left, and President Jalal Talabani, center-right, are flanked by the leader of the northern autonomous Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani, left, shaking hands with Shi'ite Vice President Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, right, after they signed a three-page agreement on a new alliance of moderate Shi'ites and Kurds at a meeting in Baghdad, Iraq, August 16, 2007.

With Nouri al-Maliki's government teetering on the verge of collapse, Baghdad's Green Zone is humming with political maneuverings by Iraqi politicians who want his job. Given the dominance of the Shi'ite coalition in Iraq's legislature, the likelihood remains that the next Prime Minister — like Maliki and his predecessor, Ibrahim al-Jaafari — will come from within its ranks. And that fact alone means there's little likelihood of a major change in Iraqi government policies — bad news for the Bush Administration. Here's a look at the front-runners and the wild cards:

The Usual Suspects

The Shi'ite coalition's most likely candidate is Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a French-trained economist and political chameleon. Having been, at various points in his career, a communist, a Ba'athist and a secular liberal democrat, he has switched directions so many times it's hard to know which way he's going. These days, Abdul-Mahdi represents the Shi'ite-fundamentalist Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), which, like Maliki's Dawa Party, is beholden to Tehran. Twice in the past two years, Abdul-Mahdi has told journalists he was on the verge of quitting the SIIC to form his own party, only to change his mind — likely because he knows he has no grassroots support or street cred of his own. As Prime Minister, he would be little more than a puppet in the hand of Iran's ayatollahs, and would be unlikely to do more than Maliki has done to accommodate the Sunnis.

Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, appointed by the U.S. but voted out in the first democratic election, is offering himself as a secular alternative to Maliki, but his own track record is not exactly inspiring either. During his brief tenure, he showed little capacity for administration and no political vision beyond his own survival. His government was riddled with corruption and ineptitude, and it was during Allawi's reign that militias began to infiltrate Iraqi security forces. He failed even to rally like-minded secular parties, and has spent little time in Iraq since losing the last election, rarely attending parliament. In recent weeks, he has tried to cobble together a new alliance with Sunnis, but has met strong opposition from Kurdish parties.

The Wild Cards

Look out for Ammar al-Hakim, the flamboyant and controversial son of SIIC leader Abdel-Azziz al-Hakim. With his father undergoing chemotherapy in Iran, the younger Hakim has had a major say in the running of the party. If Ammar makes a play for the Prime Minister's job, it would make the U.S. doubly uncomfortable: not only is he close to Tehran, Hakim was briefly detained by U.S. forces when returning from Iran last February. He is unlikely to have forgotten or forgiven.

One of the most unusual figures in Iraqi politics is Mithal Alussi. He is Sunni — a major handicap in the Prime Ministerial stakes — but is widely viewed as secular and independent. He earned the wrath of Sunni insurgent groups when he visited Israel in the fall of 2004. There have been several attempts to assassinate him; his two sons were killed in one such attack. His Democratic Party of the Iraqi Nation is tiny, but Alussi has a high profile because of his frequent appearance on TV news shows, where he rails against sectarianism and government corruption. This has earned him the respect of many Iraqis, and his personal popularity could make him a compromise candidate for Maliki's job.

Like Alussi, deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh is seen as upright and secular. But he's a Kurd, which would make him unacceptable to the country's Arab majority. Besides, the Kurds already have the presidency (Jalal Talabani), and several important ministries.

Some analysts have begun to talk about the "Musharraf option" — a Pakistan-style military dictatorship under a strongman willing to pursue U.S. interests. Sunni politicians have openly said they would prefer this to a Prime Minister from the Shi'ite Islamist parties. But none of Iraq's military commanders has looked a likely candidate, and the U.S. is unlikely to back a coup.

The wildest of wild cards is Moqtada al-Sadr. The firebrand Shi'ite cleric has no interest in holding office himself — he regards himself as being above politics — but he is the country's most powerful player, and will likely have a major say in who gets Maliki's job. None of the 30 members of parliament from Sadr's bloc seems to be of prime ministerial caliber, but then, neither did Maliki.

Whenever an Iraqi prime minister looks shaky, you can count on Ahmed Chalabi to put out the word that he is a candidate, and launch political maneuvers. Soundly defeated in the last general election — his group failed to win a single seat outright — Chalabi is one of Iraq's most despised political figures. Only in the surreal world of Iraqi politics would such a man even be considered a potential Prime Minister.