Maliki's Imperfect Makeover

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Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was at pains to stress his new non-sectarian attitude when addressing Iraqi parliamentarians Monday. "The events of the past weeks have proven that we are neutral, not biased, that we did not take the side of this party or this sect against another," said Maliki, whose government has waged a two-month crackdown on the militia of onetime ally Moqtada al-Sadr. "We have also proven there is no security for any sect unless other sects can be guaranteed their security."

The remarks appeared to be yet another appeal by Maliki to convince Sunni factions who've boycotted his government for nearly a year to rejoin. Foundering negotiations between his government and the main Sunni bloc, the National Accordance Front, have gone on for months with no visible signs of progress, much to the frustration of Iraqi and American officials who'd like to shore up support for the Prime Minister.

The National Accordance Front has long accused Maliki, a Shi'ite, of being too much of a sectarian partisan to offer evenhanded leadership in a coalition government comprising Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds. That was a fair criticism until November 2006, when the Sadrists, too, began a boycott of Mailiki's government because the Prime Minister refused to press for an American withdrawal. Tensions between the two formerly allied Shi'ite factions built until open clashes erupted in Basra in March, when Iraqi forces attacked Mahdi Army havens there. The move sparked months of fighting that spread across southern Iraq and Baghdad — and offered Maliki a chance to prove his political critics wrong.

But the gesture seems to have fallen flat. The National Accordance Front still appears uninterested in getting involved in a Maliki government. No doubt part of that calculation has much to do with lingering disputes between the two camps, such as over the fate of thousands of Sunni detainees in Iraqi jails the National Accordance Front wants freed. But a new reality is emerging that may factor into the thinking of potential political allies the Prime Minister is courting: Maliki is looking more and more like a lame duck as October elections in Iraq approach.

What little political capital Maliki's hobbled and isolated government holds is likely to dwindle in the upcoming provincial elections, which both the Sadrists and the Sunni factions hope to capitalize on. By and large both camps stayed away from the last elections in 2005. But since then both the Sadrists and various Sunni factions have displayed a new interest in gathering political power at the polls even while keeping a hand in Iraq's ongoing violence. The Sadrists are poised to win broadly in southern Iraq, while members of the Sunni Awakening Council will likely clinch victories in Anbar Province. That will leave Maliki, with a cabinet without Sadrists and Sunnis, struggling to make the case for having a national mandate.

Already he suffers in the shadow of Iraq's most popular nationalist, Moqtada al-Sadr. Fighting between U.S.-backed Iraqi forces and guerrilla fighters in Sadr City flared again Monday despite the announcement over the weekend of a cease-fire. On the afternoon Maliki spoke, sporadic clashes in Sadr City left at least 11 dead and 19 wounded — and opened the question of whether the Prime Minister has the ability to make peace at all anymore.