Nouri al-Maliki is tenacious and resilient. Nine months ago, he finished second in Iraq’s second free election — one that observers deemed to be fair — with less than one-third of the seats.
Though Ayad Allawi was the top vote getter, the secular Shiite — who led a mostly Sunni part — was never able to put together a governing coalition. Al-Maliki was, through nonstop wheeling and dealing, and last week he was confirmed to a second five-year term as Iraq’s prime minister.
He presides over a much more stable and optimistic country than five years ago when Iraq was on the murderous verge of a secular civil war. Today, there are definite signs of economic life, crowds have returned to the streets and Iraq is judged to be safer than Mexico.
The issues al-Maliki faces are not as violent but every bit as serious. The oil industry has to be rebuilt and a formula agreed upon for division of its revenue. Basra, the southern city that is the center of the country’s oil industry, is agitating for regional autonomy like the Kurds in the north.
And then there is the question of the scheduled departure of 50,000 U.S. troops at the end of 2011. American officials say at least some of the troops will stay on if asked, but for the past nine months there has been no Iraqi government to do the asking.
The test for al-Maliki is whether the governing coalition he has so laboriously constructed is so large and so carefully counterbalanced that it may be incapable of reaching decisions.
Al-Maliki has extended real political power to the Sunnis, who boycotted the election five years ago and found themselves largely shut out of the government. He has named a Sunni as one of three deputy prime ministers and another as speaker of the parliament. He has given them nine ministries, including finance, education and electricity. It is rumored that he plans to make a Sunni his defense minister.
He also blocked an attempt by followers of the vehemently anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr to have one of their number named deputy prime minister. Instead, al-Maliki gave the Sadrists eight relatively junior ministries.
Even so, with 44 cabinet posts to play with — some of them have no duties, only a title — he faces a rebellion from the parliament’s female members, since he offered posts to only two women.
Al-Maliki’s detractors say he has authoritarian tendencies. His supporters say he has a strong personality, but is no dictator. Let’s hope the supporters are right, because al-Maliki’s democratic re-election serves as both an example and a rebuke to the rest of the Arab Middle East.
Dale McFeatters is a columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service.