Iraqis go to the polls next month in provincial elections that promise to be the most fiercely contested thus far, as the post-Saddam era moves to open a post-U.S. chapter. And one major issue will undoubtedly be case of shoe-tossing journalist Muntader al-Zaidi, who became a hero on the streets of Iraq and much of the Arab world after his failed attempt to bean President Bush at a press conference. Zaidi is to stand trial on New Year's Eve, Abdul Satar Birqadr, the spokesman for Iraq's High Judicial Council said Monday, on charges of "assaulting a foreign head of state visiting Iraq." Even if putting Zaidi on trial appears to risk igniting public hostility, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki may yet seek to make the case work to his a political advantage ahead of next month's poll, for which some 17.5 million are registered to vote.
The election is expected to be marked by fierce political competition, which U.S. officials fear could degenerate into violence. "I hope there is not, but there probably will be some who try to use intimidation to move forward, gain an advantage in the election," U.S. commander General Raymond Odierno told reporters on Tuesday. "The Iraqi Security Force and us are looking at that to make sure that doesn't happen." The election represents a crucial test for Prime Minister Maliki, because it will be the first time intra-Shi'ite political competition is put before the electorate. Maliki was brought to power by the United Iraqi Alliance, which combined all the major Shi'ite parties into a single coalition; this time, each of the Alliance's constituent parties is competing independently, and Maliki will be in fierce competition with Shi'ite rivals, particularly the Islamic Supreme Council the largest party in the Shi'ite coalition. (See top 10 religion stories of 2008.)
The Zaidi case could help him boost Maliki's popularity. Altough he has thus far kept a distance from the process of deciding Zaidi's fate, many Iraqis believe Mliki will move either for an official pardon or a muted sentence, which could prove to be a popular move ahead of the January 31 poll. (See pictures of the aftermath of Zaidi's shoe attack) "The prime minister deals with everything from his [partisan] position," said Mithal al-Allousi, a secular member of Parliament. "I believe he will use [Zaidi's trial] for the election for his own benefit, as he uses the budget for his own benefit."
Maliki's supporters fiercely reject that notion. "I don't think this trial will change anything for al-Maliki, because Maliki said from the first day that whatever the judge decides, we will respect it," said Abdel Hadi al-Hassani, a Member of Parliament from the Prime Minister's Dawa party. "I think Maliki will abandon his personal rights [to demand a harsher punishment for Zaidi] because he is passionate and has a big heart, and he thinks of all Iraqis as brothers and sons. But that does not mean that the judge will not rule against Zaidi."
Whether or not a politically motivated pardon of Zaidi is forthcoming, Maliki's campaign maneuvering thus far has not won him many friends. The prime minister has come under fire from opponents over his attempt to undercut support for regional rivals by establishing and funding tribal councils loyal to the central government. He has also been criticized for his increasingly heavy-handed approach in dealing with government agencies.
Last week's mass arrest of officials of the Ministry of the Interior prompted some politicians to raise suspicions of a partisan, election-related agenda. Initial accusations linked the 24 people detained to a coup plot through covert membership in al-Awda, a descendant of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. By Tuesday, however, the allegations of wrongdoing against those arrested had been reduced to claims of fraudulent production of Interior Ministry Identification cards, and a Ministry spokesman said that all of the officials had been released for lack of evidence. The conflicting accounts of the events surrounding the arrests, in a ministry seen as dominated by officials loyal to the Islamic Supreme Council, have raised eyebrows. (See top 10 most awkward moments of 2008.)
"The arrests [in the Interior Ministry] are a political and election-related issue much more than a security issue," Omar Abdel Sattar, a Sunni member of parliament from the Tawafiq bloc, told TIME. "For sure, it has been used for election propaganda. We all know there are a lot of disagreements between [Interior Minister Jawad] Bolani's party, the Constitutional Party, and Maliki's party."
With additional reporting by Mazin Ezzat/ Baghdad