Efforts are underway to hold together the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) coalition—the largest Shia bloc in the Iraqi parliament—in preparation for the forthcoming national election set to be held in February 2010. Baghdad’s power brokers seek to keep the coalition from splintering into its various Islamist groups, and to add liberal Shias and independent Sunnis to give it a non-sectarian luster, much like the first incarnation of the coalition that ran in the January 2005 and carried the ballot sheet number ‘169’; this list was officially blessed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani at the time. In fact, the euphemistic term being given to these efforts is being called “resurrecting 169”.

Yet the power brokers are faced with two stumbling blocks: convincing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to stay within the UIA, and recruiting credible Sunnis.

Maliki has four optimal options: going at it alone with a non-party list, running as the head of the Da’awa Party, allying with a strong Sunni list, or staying within an expanded UIA but only if it is recognized that he is top dog, given his popular standing. His political advisors are split into two camps: Sami al-Askari and Hassan al-Sunaid want him to leave the UIA, while the pro-UIA faction is represented by Sadiq al-Rikabi, according to well-placed sources. Askari and Sunaid argue that there is no trusting the UIA, who, come February, can tell the Da’awa Party that their party has already been given the premiership of two cabinets (Maliki’s predecessor, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja’afari was also a member of the Da’awa Party) and that it was time to cede the top post to other coalition partners. Al-Rikabi does not rule out this possibility, but views it as the lesser evil when risking a move in the current parliament by the UIA to pass a no-confidence vote on Maliki’s government, depriving him of his incumbency status, and the state funds that go with it, in the run up to the elections.

Adding insult to injury, Maliki is being told that he will play second fiddle to Ammar al-Hakim, eldest son of the terminally ill head of the UIA Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim. The younger al-Hakim has taken the lead in cobbling together the UIA, signifying that the Hakims are unwilling to defer their own political stature and primacy to Maliki’s popularity.

Maliki’s base has been eroding since his strong showing in the provincial elections, due to his botched handling of choosing governors and accusations of cozying up to Ba’athists. Instead of sticking to his campaign promise to fill out executive positions with able technocrats, what the Iraqi voter saw was a power grab by Da’awa Party apparatchiks in the provinces where Maliki scored big. Where the Da’awa did not have the seats to dominate provincial councils, the process of electing governors was rife with recriminations and factional squabbling, with most of the noise in the media coming from Maliki’s sulking allies, a spectacle that did not go down well with the Iraqi public.

Chances of Maliki allying with the rising neo-Ba’athist Sunni bloc headed by Saleh al-Mutlag were dashed after he sustained deep political wounds among the Shia constituency when word of such an alliance was first released. Maliki’s rivals within the UIA launched a broad-based campaign discrediting Maliki with attempts to rehabilitate the Ba’athists. Should Maliki decide to break with the UIA, he will still face a coalition of Shia parties rallying around the campaign rhetoric of preventing the Ba’athists from recapturing power, a call that will go far among his would-be constituency.

Furthermore, a wing of the Da’awa Party led by MP Kamal al-Sa’idi has read Maliki the riot act: he cannot count on the hardcore anti-Ba’athist party cadres to follow him if he leaves the UIA, leading to a further splinter within the Da’awa. There is even talk of Iranian pressure on this wing to ditch Maliki and to revert back to the ‘169’ model.

One of the key operators in all of this is Ahmad Chalabi, who put together the initial 169 list. Chalabi has been asked to deliver liberal Shias, the Islamic Action Organization (a Karbala-based Shia Islamist faction that has not joined the UIA), the Sadrists and credible Sunnis. He is coasting along in wooing back the Sadrists—his allies of convenience—but Chalabi’s problem is that a resurrected UIA will be seen as nothing other than a Shia Islamist sectarian vehicle, which would prompt Sunnis to come up with their own sectarian blocs. Sunnis with sizable constituencies would be loath to risk their standing by joining a coalition in which they would be seen as mere tokens. So far, the only Sunnis who seem amenable to Chalabi’s maneuvers have been tertiary characters who did not fare well in the provincial elections last January such as Hamid al-Hayess (a former Iraqi National Congress member) and Ali al-Hatem, both tribal sheikhs from Anbar. Likewise, the liberal and secular Shias that Chalabi is hoping to recruit would count as no more than fig leaves for the Islamists—an accusation being leveled at Chalabi himself.

Maliki’s arm is being twisted to stay within the new ‘169’ framework, even though he may end up losing the premiership anyway and will not be able to aspire to a national status if he runs again on a sectarian list. Maliki also cannot afford to risk running against a list that is seemingly supported by al-Sistani, which was the ruse the UIA pulled in the second set of parliamentary elections in 2005, even though the ayatollah had made no public pronouncement either way. Chances are this ruse will be enacted again.

For Maliki it is either rejoining the UIA as a junior partner, or being pushed out of office, splintering his party and banking on his popularity as the man who restored law and order. Given the rising clamor over deteriorating security, especially as relates to organized crime and the false story that he trumpeted regarding the capture of top jihadist Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, Maliki may not be running on much if he bucks the UIA as his own man. Hence, he has been out-played by the old-guard of the UIA and is politically stuck.

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