In Iraq, Maliki Banks on a New 'Unity' Coalition

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Muhannad Fala'ah / Getty

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki reads a speech during a meeting for his "State of Law Coalition," a political alliance for the upcoming Iraqi elections in Baghdad, Iraq.

When Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki parted ways with his Shi'a allies in the ruling Iraqi National Alliance, everyone expected the wily politician, who has led Iraq since April 2006, to come up with a political bloc of his own. On Thursday, Maliki took the stage in the ballroom of Baghdad's upper-crusty Al-Rasheed hotel, before a crowd of more than 500 guests — including American, European and Asian diplomants — and, one by one, 55 leaders of his new "State of Law" coalition came up to join him. It appeared to be a veritable national unity slate, composed of Sunnis who turned on al-Qaeda, independent politicians, tribal leaders, religious minorities and, of course, fellow members of Maliki's Shi'ite Dawa Party.

In the last three-and-a-half years, Maliki has surprised his countrymen and his sometimes chagrined U.S. allies with his tenacity and craftiness. Now, with State of Law, he must go toe-to-toe with the Iraqi National Alliance (INA) which, in the shape-shifting politics of Iraq, is the current manifestation of the coalition that Maliki rode to power in 2006. To stay in charge of Iraq, Maliki must defeat his former coalition allies in what are expected to be tough elections on January 16. The victor will have a difficult four years to maintain security as American troops depart, and turn around cynical Iraqis tired of little improvement in basic services and still recurring violence.

INA is a formidable organization. Its predominant partners are the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq — the largest Shi'ite political party now led by Ammar al-Hakim, the son of the recently departed and revered cleric Abdulaziz al-Hakim — and the militant Moqtada al-Sadr's party, which has its pulse on the much of the country's poor and frustrated Shi'a underclass.

Maliki had held protracted negotiations to re-join the INA but wanted his Dawa Party to receive a majority of the block's parliament seats and to be guaranteed a return to the premiership. No deal. So Maliki decided to gamble on his own prowess, forming a new coalition he touts as nationalist (condemning alleged Syrian support for terrorism in Iraq and promoting a strong central government) as well as anti-sectarian (digs at the INA, which is led by clerics with strong ties to neighboring Iran).

In the coming months, Iraq's contending coalitions will expand and contract. Many smaller parties and candidates will decide whether one of the coalitions is right for them. Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's Iraqyia list, for example, has been holding talks with the INA but is undecided. Most importantly, the Kurdistan Alliance will be carefully courted as potential kingmaker when the votes are cast and a new government is formed. Iraq's Kurds put forward a mostly united front in their rocky relations with the central government in Baghdad over autonomy, oil sharing, and disputed territories, issues that pit it against Sunni Arabs in the northwest and most Iraqi nationalists.

At the Al-Rasheed Hotel, one haunting figure wandered in from the streets to wag a finger at the politicians and power-brokers. "Maybe God will direct them in the right way," says Naima Daoud Salman, 80, dressed in a dusty black Abaya from head to toe. Salman showed up because she heard powerful people would be here. Frail, with one bad eye and the other made of glass, she and seven other women traversed the Al-Rasheed's marble hallways looking for government assistance. They had been evicted from a squatters den three months ago, after being kicked out of their homes during the ethnic cleansing of a Baghdad neighborhood in 2006. She stops suit-and-tie men wearing expensive jewelry, asking for high-level politicians by name, to see people who an hour earlier shared the stage with Maliki. "I know I'm an old woman, but I can't find anyone to help me. I came here because now I don't have a place to live." Dejected, the women exit into the hot and dusty parking lot. "I want our voice to be heard," Salman says. She and her fellow voters may get their wish — or revenge — on Jan. 16.