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BAGHDAD – If Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wins a third four-year term in parliamentary elections Wednesday, he is likely to rely on a narrow sectarian Shiite base, only fueling divisions as Iraq slides deeper into bloody Shiite-Sunni hatreds.
After eight years in power, al-Maliki is facing sharper criticism from all sides.
The Sunni minority views him as a diehard champion of Shiite power. His former Kurdish allies now shun him, accusing him of trying to impose Baghdad's power over their autonomous region in the north. And even some of al-Maliki's Shiite backers denounce him as a would-be dictator, amassing power for himself.
The 63-year-old al-Maliki is still seen as likely to keep his post. Many in the Shiite majority see no alternative, and he holds a trump card — the support of neighboring powerhouse Iran, which al-Maliki's own aides say will use its weight to push discontented Shiite factions into backing him for another term.
That, however, could mean a victory on an even narrower base than in his re-election four years ago, when he barely managed to cobble together enough Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni backers to form a government.
The Shiite al-Maliki rose from relative obscurity to office in 2006, when Iraq's sectarian bloodletting began to spiral out of control, with Sunni militants and Shiite militias butchering each other's communities. He quickly became known for a tough hand, working in alliance with American forces in the country since the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Over the years that followed, Sunni tribes backed by the Americans rose up to fight al-Qaida-linked militants, while al-Maliki showed a readiness to rein in Shiite militiamen — and by 2008, the violence had eased.
Since the withdrawal of American forces in late 2011, however, it has swelled again, stoked in part by al-Maliki. His moves last year to crush protests by Sunnis complaining of discrimination under his Shiite-led government sparked a new wave of violence by militants, who took over the city of Fallujah in the western, Sunni-dominated province of Anbar and parts of the provincial capital Ramadi. Iraqi army and police forces battling them for months have been unable to take most areas back.
At the same time, many Iraqis increasingly complain of government corruption and the failure to rebuild the economy.
"Al-Maliki has had enough chance to prove himself, but he failed," said Hassan Karim, a university graduate from Baghdad's Shiite Sadr City district. "Iraqis lack security, services and housing. The only two things available in the country right now are corruption and checkpoints."
The normally aloof al-Maliki has struck a populist tone in his campaign, aiming to show he is tackling problems like corruption and poverty that cross sectarian boundaries.
He has distributed plots of land to poor Iraqis in ceremonies carried live on state television. He made heavily televised visits to government departments that provide vital services, like car registration and ID and passport offices, comforting Iraqis standing in line. During one visit, he berated an employee for being insensitive to the hardships endured by Iraqis seeking services.
In a slick campaign video, he speaks of growing up in a village south of Baghdad in a family of clan chiefs and fondly recalls playing football and swimming in a local river. He affectionately remembers a grandfather who used his poetry to criticize British colonial rule and talks of his own love for Iraq.
"I believe the election will not produce a prime minister better than al-Maliki. He is the lesser of many evils," said hotel employee Mohammed Hadi, a Shiite from eastern Baghdad. "Al-Maliki has good experience ... Any other prime minister will be starting from scratch."
Al-Maliki's political bloc, State of Law, is widely expected to win the most seats in Wednesday's election for a new, 328-seat parliament. But cobbling together a majority in the chamber so he can be the next prime minister will be the tough part. It took months of tortuous negotiations after the 2010 elections to put together a coalition to ensure al-Maliki's re-election.
This time the discontent among his allies is even stronger, with complaints that al-Maliki has monopolized power and put his trust in a handful of close aides and relatives.
Prominent Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, recently issued a fatwa, or religious decree, saying his Sadrist group, a one-time backer of al-Maliki, will no longer support him.
"I offer brother al-Maliki a piece of advice: Forget about a third term," said al-Sadr, a fiercely anti-American cleric whose movement holds about 40 seats in the outgoing parliament.
The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a major Shiite party that was part of every ruling coalition since Saddam's ouster, has been less than enthusiastic about a third term for al-Maliki and forged a tactical alliance with the Sadrists.
Also, one of Iraq's top Shiite clerics, Grand Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafi, issued a startling statement calling on voters not to elect al-Maliki, though he avoided mentioning him by name. The Pakistani-born al-Najafi has the smallest following from among Iraq's top four grand ayatollahs, based in the holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad. But his thinly veiled denunciation of al-Maliki was unprecedented.
"We had hoped after Saddam that we will have freedom and the Iraqis will live in peace ... Four years after four years, and the dead and wounded are in the hundreds," he said. "Where does all the money go?"
An aide to al-Maliki, Sheik Halim al-Zuheiri, said al-Najafi's comments were "regrettable" and violated what he called the traditional neutrality on political matters by Najaf's Shiite religious establishment.
Iraq's powerful Kurdish minority, which has had its own self-ruled region in the north since 1991, has also fallen out with al-Maliki. In a strongly worded statement this week, the Kurdish zone's government described al-Maliki's eight years in power as among the worst in Iraq's history, something traditionally reserved for Saddam's rule.
"There is not a single Kurdish party that is prepared to commit political suicide by entering an alliance with a man who does not believe in the rights of Kurdish people and stands against them," said the statement.
Al-Maliki's Shiite and Kurdish rivals could try to forge an alliance with Sunnis to push al-Maliki out. The Supreme Council has hinted at possible alternatives, such as former interior and finance minister Bayan Jabr. But he and other possibilities are seen as unlikely to be able to rally enough support.
A top al-Maliki aide predicted Iran would push rival Shiite groups to close ranks behind al-Maliki to retain political dominance, as it did in 2010.
"Iran will be looking for someone to protect its interests ... There have not been any problems between al-Maliki and Iran during his time in power," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the backroom politics.
The Sunnis are deep in a predicament of their own. Fighting in Anbar will make voting impossible in some areas, reducing their voice.
"Iraq's Sunni Arab component stands to lose a great deal in this election because they are under siege," Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni, told The Associated Press.
"They have reached such a deep state of despair and fear that they see no reason to go and vote. Today, many Sunnis see secession as a possible solution."
Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report from Baghdad.