Al-Maliki's Gamble on U.S. Troop Withdrawal Deadline Pays Off Politically

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Parliament's approval of a security pact with the U.S. has propelled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki into a position of strength unsurpassed among Iraqi political leaders since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Furious dealmaking preceded the vote Thursday, compelling al-Maliki to make a wide range of concessions to Sunni lawmakers in exchange for their support. As a result, he emerged with his main goal intact: a historic agreement in which the last American soldier would leave Iraq by Jan. 1, 2012, and restore the country's full national sovereignty.

Coming on top of a string of military and political successes this year, the agreement has given al-Maliki the aura of a national leader who rises above Iraq's chronic sectarian and ethnic divisions to pursue the greater interest.

Experts are divided on how long will the prime minister's political dominance will last however.

"The prime minister is involved in political struggles that have only just begun, and it is far from clear how well he can survive the power struggles and elections to come," said Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon analyst now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"The insurgency is still there, Arab-Kurdish rivalries are growing, Shiite-Sunni tensions are still critical, and no one can predict the future power struggle within each key ethnic and sectarian faction," Cordesman said.

Al-Maliki risked his future on the agreement with the United States, which many Iraqis see as an occupying power. Failure to win approval might have forced him to step down.

"Some thought they could use the agreement to weaken the prime minister," said Haidar al-Ibadi, a senior Shiite lawmaker and a close al-Maliki aide. "Frankly, they were playing with fire."

Realizing the stakes, a group of mostly Sunni lawmakers sought concessions from al-Maliki in exchange for their support.

Al-Maliki said that amounted to blackmail but, in the end, he met most of their demands in a three-page "Charter of Political Reform."

The declaration doesn't have the force of law. But it has committed al-Maliki to make changes on several thorny issues he had been reluctant to undertake.

Chief among them are the full integration into the security forces and government agencies of thousands of U.S.-backed Sunni fighters who revolted against al-Qaida in Iraq and recruiting more Sunnis in the Shiite-dominated army and police.

He also pledged to work for the release of thousands of Sunni security detainees not charged with specific crimes and allow wider participation in top-level decision making.

"Many political blocs, including those close to al-Maliki, have had fears that al-Maliki was becoming authoritarian. The Charter of Political Reform will stop him from becoming a one-man government," said Adnan al-Dulaimi, a Sunni politician and bitter critic of the prime minister.

The Sunnis had long been alone in publicly accusing al-Maliki of monopolizing power. Recently, however, some Kurds have started to repeat the allegation. The Kurds complained that the prime minister was violating the constitution by creating tribal "support councils" across Iraq ostensibly as a backup for security forces.

Critics see the councils as a move to undercut rival political parties and gain patronage in the Shiite south of the country. The quarrel came to a head last week, when the country's three-member Presidential Council publicly berated al-Maliki and ordered him to disband the councils or find legal coverage for them.

That blow to al-Maliki raised doubt whether he could muster enough support to retain his office after the 2009 general election. However his winning the security pact appears to put him back on a strong path.

"Assuming (the next elections) are free and fair ... I am not sure al-Maliki can survive them and get re-elected," said prominent U.S.-based Iraq expert Juan Cole.

Al-Maliki is already showing some of the trappings associated with authoritarian Arab rulers, something certain to be used against him in the run-up to the 2009 elections.

He has exploited the dramatic drop of violence as a tribute to his leadership and coverage of his activities, even the most mundane, dominates the state media's news.

There are signs to suggest he intends to do the same with the security pact.

"It's a historic day for our glorious Iraqi people," he said in a televised speech several hours after the passage. "We have realized one of our most important achievements in approving the agreement," he said in a kind of flowery Arabic usually reserved for a military victory.

Prior to the broadcast, state television showed footage of demonstrators hoisting portraits of the prime minister and a recital of a poem that praised his rule, but without mentioning him by name.