BAGHDAD – Iraqi voters will choose a new parliament at the end of January for the first time since 2005, setting the stage for elections that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hopes will reward him for improved security in the country.
But a recent spate of deadly bombings in Baghdad has dented his image, and the threat of more violence could rise as U.S. forces redeploy outside of urban areas by June 30 as scheduled. The U.S. should be able to help Iraqi forces maintain security for the Jan. 30 vote, but with more than eight months to go, a second term for al-Maliki is far from certain.
The Shiite prime minister, who completes three years in office this month, is looking for a stronger mandate to forge ahead with what he says is a unity government that includes all of Iraq's ethnic and religious groups. He hopes to build on the success his supporters had in provincial elections held in January.
But those elections highlighted that Iraqi politics are still fairly sectarian, with many Shiites and Sunnis voting for candidates based on religion. Overcoming that tendency and maintaining the improved security of the past two years will be the two most significant challenges for al-Maliki as he seeks to strengthen his power.
The legislature received a ruling Monday from the country's Federal Court setting the Jan. 30 date, which is about a month later than had been expected, deputy parliament speaker Khalid al-Attiyah told The Associated Press.
Iraq's last general election was in December 2005, but the elected legislature did not hold its first session until March 2006, prompting the parliament's request for a court ruling about when the next election should be held.
Al-Maliki had opposed calls to delay the election even longer. Postponing the vote would give Shiite and Sunni rivals who did not fare as well in the provincial elections more time to regroup. The Kurdish self-ruled region in the north did not participate in the provincial elections.
One of the groups that did not do as well was the Iranian-backed Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a conservative Shiite party led by Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim. Last week, he called for the revival of a coalition of Shiite parties that contested the 2005 vote on a joint ticket.
The United Iraqi Alliance has virtually ceased to exist following the withdrawal of major blocs and because of the sharp differences between al-Maliki and the Supreme Council over a host of security and political issues. The prime minister has not yet responded to al-Hakim's call to revive the coalition.
Maintaining security for the balloting is a top priority for the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, and other high-ranking Pentagon officials. The bulk of the estimated 138,000 American troops in the country are expected to remain in Iraq for the vote.
U.S. forces played a key role in maintaining security during the two general elections held in January and December 2005, as well as a nationwide referendum on a new constitution in October 2005 and January's provincial elections.
The scheduled withdrawal of American forces from Iraqi cities is part of a security agreement between the two countries that went into effect Jan. 1. Under the pact, the last American soldier will leave Iraq by the end of 2011.
Also Monday, Iraq's state television showed partial footage of the interrogation of a man it says is Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, the main Al Qaeda front group in the country. Iraq says it arrested al-Baghdadi on April 23.
The Islamic State of Iraq has denied the arrest, and militant Web sites subsequently carried an audio message purportedly from al-Baghdadi mocking the Iraqi government and denying he had been taken captive.
The U.S. military has not confirmed the arrest and has been skeptical of past Iraqi claims to have captured or killed al-Baghdadi that turned out to be wrong. The U.S. has even said al-Baghdadi was simply an actor used by the terror movement to give an Iraqi face to an organization dominated by foreign Al Qaeda fighters. The man on the grainy video shown Monday said his real name was Ahmed Abed Ahmed Khamees al-Mujamaie and he was born in 1969 in Diyala province north of Baghdad. He said Al Qaeda in Iraq relied on money sent by charities in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria for funding, in addition to robberies carried out inside Iraq.
He said the group was responsible for the 2006 bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra north of Baghdad that sparked sectarian Shiite-Sunni killings that claimed thousands of lives. He also suggested the group cooperated with Saddam Hussein's now-banned Baath party.
Separately, police officials in Basra said a senior police officer in charge of training in the southern city's police academy was killed Monday by a roadside bomb that exploded near his house. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media.