The new United Iraqi Alliance coalition, due to run in the forthcoming national elections in January and encompassing most of Shia Islamist parties, was supposed to be publicly unveiled on August 2. Then someone mentioned that it was improper to do so in a festive fashion on the anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. So it was pushed back to today, Thursday, but someone remembered that that would coincide with the birth date of the Mahdi, the Shia messiah who has been in occultation for over a millenium, and that would be too blatantly sectarian, not to mention weird and creepy. So now it has been agreed that the UIA will be announced by next Wednesday.

These delays cannot be chalked up solely to finding the most auspicious and PR-friendly date possible; these delays mask a failure by the chief architects of the new UIA to sign on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. They know fully well that without Maliki, the UIA would be a desperate stunt by washed-up parties that have been battered at the ballot box, and continue to sink at the polls.

For now, UIA sources are putting up a brave face, “Everything is fine, Maliki is on board.” But they must have been a little rattled when Ali al-Adeeb, the most enthusiastic supporter for a resurrected UIA within the Maliki camp, was quoted a couple of days ago as saying to an Iraqi news agency that “It is a matter of who joins who,” that is, does Maliki join the UIA or does the UIA fold under the wing and leadership of Maliki, the latter an impossible prospect for the inflated egos of the UIA’s key players.

It is at such times that one must tune into Baghdad’s rumor mills. Rumors may not be true, yet they do reflect a state of mind and may influence the multiple showdowns of political brinkmanship accompanying the negotiations for a new alliance. One particular rumor must sound upsetting to Maliki: the consensus candidate for the prime minister’s job after the election is the current Minister of Interior, Jawad al-Bolani. According to the rumor mongers, most of the components of the UIA—spooked as they are by Maliki’s rising fortunes—as well as the Kurds and the two dominant Sunni camps, the Islamists and the neo-Ba’athists, want any credible alternative to Maliki to be agreed upon before going further, and that candidate is Mr. Bolani. In other words, the UIA is a trap for Maliki so that his adversaries can tether him down and replace him with another.

The rumor is aided by Mr. Bolani’s actions and pretentions to the top job. Four years ago, he formed the Constitutional Party that ran in the most recent provincial elections, garnering a limited number of seats. Bolani tells people that the Americans support his candidacy, and that Maliki’s bragging chits—improved security and clamping down on the militias—are actually his successes as the head of Iraq’s police forces. Furthermore, Bolani markets himself as a secular politician; something that Maliki would have trouble doing as head of the Islamist Da’awa Party, at a time when Iraqi voters seem to be following a general trend favoring secular politics. It should be remembered that in the last parliamentary elections in 2005, Bolani ran on Ahmad Chalabi’s slate, leading some rumormongers to suggest that Bolani is actually Chalabi’s Manchurian Candidate—Chalabi being one of the chief negotiators trying to cobble the UIA back together.

Then there is fact, which either refutes a rumor, or accentuates it, depending on how warped the discourse is in Baghdad. Fact says that Bolani signed an alliance document last week with Ayad Allawi and Saleh al-Mutlag, the leading lights of the unabashedly neo-Ba’athist strain of Iraqi politics. This document was signed at Allawi’s home, according to an eye witness. Would this revelation contradict the rumor above, or does it serve to further fortify the impression that Bolani is indeed the consensus candidate, if even the neo-Ba’athists are supporting him?

Whatever the case, the delays are hurting both Maliki and the UIA. Maliki had publicly announced that he had come back into the UIA in the lead up to the elections, foregoing the opportunity to form a nationalist slate of his own. Those who may vote for Maliki as a national leader, who had done much to restore a sense of security and sovereignty, may not follow him to the UIA, especially when a vote for Maliki would also mean a vote for Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim of the Islamic Council of Iraq, a man that is seen as the quintessential sectarian. The UIA in most people’s eyes, and especially after they had given up on recruiting credible Sunnis and Kurds, would be seen as a sectarian coalition, and voting for it would be a return to square one—a place most Iraqis have left behind them, or would like to think so.

But if Maliki suddenly announces that he will go it alone, then most people will also be mindful of the rumors of why he was compelled to do so: he had already committed himself to the UIA, and his departure could only mean that he did not get the deal he was expecting, to be prime minister again. Toss in Bolani’s name into the mix, and it would seem that Maliki is being petty and is simply out for keeping his job, not setting up a new model for post-sectarian leadership. Such political flexibility and dexterity is out of character for the image that Maliki had been projecting, that of a patriot who has been tasked to save the country. Maliki would like to claim that he is being forced to be prime minister against his will, when he would rather be retiring and writing books about Arabic literature. It is too late for that now, for he is back in the public eye as being just another power-grubbing politician.

Sunnis had high hopes for Maliki too, as a Shia leader who would forsake sectarianism and run on a national slate. A credible Sunni leader like Ahmed Abu Risha of Anbar Province was excitedly telling reporters that he is about to ally himself with Maliki for the elections, but last week he was on the record saying, dejectedly, that he had no plans to run alongside Maliki, after reports about the latter’s imminent return to the UIA. This too, will not be forgotten.

It would have made a lot of sense for Maliki to leave the UIA to its own devices, and it shall remain a mystery as to why he allowed himself to be entrapped by them. Should he eventually run with the UIA, or run alone, then what stands to reason is that he has wounded himself politically by jumping around, probably fatally so.

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