Less than nine years after US troops toppled Saddam Hussein with the stated goal of turning Iraq into a Western-friendly democracy, the country’s prime minister, Nouri Al-Maliki, is seeking to position himself as an autocrat at the head of a Shi'ite regime, analysts and political rivals warn.

In the two weeks since the last American troops departed, Iraq has been gripped by a coalition crisis that threatens the delicate balance between Al-Maliki and his Sunni partners, while in the streets a spate of bombings has reignited fears of a new round of bloody sectarian fighting like the one in 2006-2007 that took tens of thousands of lives.

RELATED:
Police: Gunmen kill five Iraq Sunni militia
Erdogan pledges full probe of deadly Turkish raid

“Al-Maliki is in conflict with both Sunnis and Shi'ites as he is trying to impose himself as a strongman in Iraq,” Reidar Visser, editor of the Iraq-focused website www.historiae.org, told The Media Line.  “The bombers are certainly exploiting the delicate political situation.”

The crisis is an embarrassment to the Obama administration, which hosted Al-Maliki in Washington earlier this month amid praise for Iraq’s nascent democracy and economic prospects.

But for Iraq the stakes are considerably bigger. The prime minister’s bid for power could saddle Iraq with a new despot at a time when the rest of the region is lurching toward democracy. Alternatively, Al-Maliki’s plan could backfire and push the country into anarchy.

Hasni Abidi, director of the Study and Research Centre for the Arab and Mediterranean World in Geneva, expressed doubts about Al-Maliki’s ability to impose himself on Iraq’s contentious political scene, calling him an “amateur dictator” who has succeeded in making foes of many of his fellow Shi'ites.

“Everything depends on the management of power. If Al-Maliki continues his eradication policy without national reconciliation … the country is at risk of experiencing hard times,” Abidi said in an e-mailed interview with The Media Line.

Al-Maliki himself fomented the government crisis just as the last US troops were heading out of the country in mid-December by accusing a Sunni coalition partner, Vice President Tariq Al-Hashemi, of links to terrorism and by asking parliament to back his dismissing a second, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Al-Mutlak. Al-Hashemi has taken refuge in the semi-autonomous Kurdish zone and has called for new elections.

Meanwhile, last Thursday at least 65 people were killed in a series of bombings. An al-Qaida-affiliated organization took responsibility for the attacks in what analysts say is an attempt to renew sectarian fighting. On Monday of this week, a suicide bomber exploded his car outside the Interior Ministry, killing at least five people.

In public, Al-Maliki remains supportive of democracy and is critical of the sectarian and ethnic divides that have pitted Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite Muslim populations against each other and led the ethnic Kurds to set up a semi-governing region of their own in the north.

“It is only normal that we should be facing problems. We don’t have a magic wand for establishing democracy and for convincing people that there is a new regime and to forget the old mentality, to convince people who still believe in the old sectarian or ethnic principles that the state should be based on democracy, elections,” the prime minister said last week in a broadcast aired by the BBC.

“Some people are still revolting against this principle,” he added. Many analysts and Iraqi politicians count Al-Maliki among those who think Iraq cannot afford democracy. Among them are Ayad Allawi, Osama Al-Nujaifi and Rafe Al-Essawi – three leaders of the Sunni Iraqiya Party – who warned in a New York Times op-ed on Wednesday that Iraq is headed for authoritarian rule.

“The prize, for which so many American soldiers believed they were fighting, was a functioning democratic and nonsectarian state. But Iraq is now moving in the opposite direction — toward a sectarian autocracy that carries with it the threat of devastating civil war,” they said.

So far, Al-Maliki’s maneuvering has had just the exact opposite effect, spurring calls for new elections and encouraging those among the Sunnis who would like to follow the Kurdish path to autonomy. But during his brief political career he has displayed a talent for consolidating power.

Born in to a middle class family from the small town of Hindiya, Al-Maliki spent most of his adult life as an exile in Iran; and in Syria as an official of the Shi'ite Al-Dawa Party. He returned to his homeland after the US invasion in 2003, won a seat in the transitional National Assembly two years later and was elevated to the post of prime minister for the first time in 2006 as the country was plunging into violence.

At the time, he was not regarded as particularly ambitious politically and ready to work with country’s Sunni minority, who had dominated Iraq during the Saddam years. But he proved tougher and less compromising than many, including the Bush administration, had expected. He quickly sent Iraqi troops into Basra, the country's second-largest city, to put down a rebellion by Muqtada Al-Sadr's militia and solidified his control over Al-Dawa.

Al-Dawa pulled in fewer votes than Iraqiya in 2010 elections, but Al-Maliki nevertheless emerged triumphant in lengthy coalition talks that followed, outmaneuvering his Sunni rivals to return to the prime minister’s office. Since then he has only strengthened his position.

Although a complicated power-sharing agreement put the key Defense and Interior Ministries under Iraqiya, Al-Maliki effectively runs both. Moreover, in the style of Middle East autocrats like Saddam or Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad, Al-Maliki created a security force, Baghdad Operations Command, that answers to him personally.

He has used his control over the state budget to gain leverage with the judiciary and oversight agencies like the anti-graft Integrity Commission. Some Iraqi dailies have suggested that he might try to amend the constitution and introduce a presidential system that would rid of him of parliamentary oversight.

Al-Maliki has reportedly never been happy with the Shi'ite-Sunni coalition he leads and has talked about establishing what he calls “a political majority,” meaning an exclusively Shiite government in its place.

Al-Maliki’s behavior the past two weeks has drawn some complaints from his fellow Shiites, most notably a call this week from a faction of Sadrist lawmakers to dissolve parliament and hold elections. But most analysts have discounted that as tactical maneuvering and say Shiite fears of a Sunni resurgence will ensure they continue backing the prime minister.

“There are also sectarian aspects to the conflict because many Sunnis are now demanding federal regions on the pattern of the Kurdish model,” said Visser, who is also an Iraq expert at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. “The Shiites who are threatening Al-Maliki basically seem to be seeking a better deal from him for themselves.”

Please LIKE our Facebook page - it makes us stronger