Ayad al-Samarrai was elected speaker of the Iraqi parliament on Sunday after garnering 153 votes. There are 275 members in the Iraqi parliament, and 138 votes were all Samarrai would have needed to pass the threshold. The ‘yea’ votes in Samarrai’s favor spell trouble for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, since the same number could be arrayed to yield a vote of ‘no confidence’ in his cabinet.

The ‘153’ bloc is an anti-Maliki coalition, rather than a pro-Samarrai faction. Those who backed Samarrai did so with the tacit understanding that his election would be the opening act in the drama to unseat the prime minister. Some sources even claim that there is a written document bearing the signatures of the anti-Maliki conspirators, and that the plan involves mustering political momentum by mid-summer to pass the ‘no confidence’ resolution—the votes are already there, but the political atmosphere in Baghdad needs to be prepared for a showdown with Maliki, who remains popular for now.

When Samarrai’s name was first put to a vote two months ago, he only got 136 votes. This result set off a legal challenge in the courts by his party that the result was valid, since he needed only a simple majority of the parliamentarians present after quorum had been achieved, according to their brief. The Maliki bloc tried to foil Samarrai’s election by voting for other candidates, or by turning in empty ballots. In a compromise that both sides imagined they would win, the legal challenge was withdrawn so that Samarrai’s name could again be put to a ballot. The Maliki faction believed that a repeat of the previous result, together with some defections, would embarrass Samarrai and force him to withdraw, and consequently leaving the coalition that was supporting him in disarray. They miscalculated, and Samarrai won, this time with more votes.

It was an unwise political battle, one that has left Maliki bleeding in the water, drawing in the political sharks. Maliki had wanted to align with the neo-Ba’athists, whom he saw as the rising Sunni power. He hoped that this new alliance would free him from trying to placate other rival Shia forces and the Kurds. It was interesting that even within Ayad Allawi’s bloc, the more Ba’athist leaning members voted against Samarrai while the liberals voted for him. The Sadrists saw that their former nemesis Maliki was vulnerable, even though he had been trying to woe them over, and voted in Samarrai’s favor.

For now, Maliki is trying to do damage control. His opponents had agitated that Maliki was trying to rehabilitate the Ba’ath Party, a rallying cry that wounded him deeply among his Shia constituency. It did not help matters when the chief of the emerging neo-Ba’athists, Saleh al-Mutlag, made incendiary statements to the effect that all the wars of the Iraqi Army in the Saddam years, including ones fought against internal ‘enemies,’ were ‘honorable’. This led to wide indignation, prompting the more ideologically-disciplined members of Maliki’s own Da’awa Party to respond with vehement anti-Ba’athist vitriol. Maliki has since seized upon every opportunity to reassure his constituency that the Ba’ath will never again be part of Iraq’s politics.

Maliki has also been hobbled by a lack of access to Washington. In the past, he had held weekly teleconferencing meetings with President George Bush, a sign that the White House was firmly behind him. Nowadays, Maliki does not enjoy the same relationship with President Barack Obama, and the rumor frantically making the rounds in Baghdad has it that the Americans allegedly said, “We’ve turned off the red light, but haven’t turned on the green light” with regards to a ‘no confidence’ vote, taking it as a signal that there they are not as vested in Maliki holding on to his job as they used to.

This leaves Maliki with the options of public relations campaigns, intimidation and appealing to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. He has allegedly hired a British PR company to polish up his image as the guardian of Iraq’s sovereignty (“he is forcing the Americans to withdraw”) and a strongman on security issues. He hopes that a strong popular sentiment gushing out to support him would embarrass his detractors. Maliki has also sought to place direct control of several military and intelligence outfits at the discretion of his office, without acknowledging the chain of command. To that effect, he is personally directing arrests and security sweeps, sending a subtle message that should anyone take parliamentary action against him, he may resort to strong-arm tactics against political opponents.

If all else fails, Maliki hopes that Sistani will tell his Shia enemies to back off. Word is already out from Najaf that the grand ayatollah has given his assent to the anti-Maliki faction that he will not interfere.

Maliki can always play the ‘comeback’ card to some success should he get yanked out of office in the lead-up to the next round of national elections. The anti-Maliki crowd is prepared to take this risk, as it mitigates against the larger risk of allowing Maliki to use the financial resources of the state, and his incumbency, to win a larger share of the electorate.

And just to think of it, a few years ago Iraq was a totalitarian nightmare.

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