Is time running out for Iraq’s Maliki?

BAGHDAD - Iraqi premier Nuri al-Maliki, accused by domestic opponents and, increasingly, by once firm American allies of "sectarianism" that has fuelled a Sunni insurgent onslaught, is a political survivor whose time may be up.

Though lauded early on in the job for pragmatically cracking down on Shiite militias and reaching out to Sunni leaders, the 63-year-old Shiite now faces the toughest test of his leadership.

Washington favoured Maliki when he became prime minister in 2006, but US officials have criticised him over the offensive that has overrun large swathes of northern and central Iraq, demanding he embrace the Sunni Arab and Kurdish minorities.

US President Barack Obama warned Thursday that only non-sectarian leadership could rescue Iraq from its current plight, an apparent rebuke of Maliki in what has been a "definite uptick" in Washington's criticism of the Iraqi leader, according to former US ambassador to Baghdad James Jeffrey.

"There is a real concern," Jeffrey, who left the post in mid-2012, told AFP.

"Everybody is a bit at fault in Iraq on the sectarian thing, but Maliki over time did become more" sectarian.

Now a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Jeffrey continued: "If they (Iraq's Shiites) want to stand by him, and the other political leaders stand by him, then he's certainly not dead weight." "He just isn't the solution to a unified Iraq." US Vice President Joe Biden, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey and David Petraeus, the former top American commander in Iraq, have all either called for Maliki to be more inclusive, or even outright criticised him.

The increasingly open frustration with the dour bespectacled politician marks a transformation for someone who was once seen as a rarity - agreeable to both the United States, Iraq's former occupier, and Iran, its powerful Shiite-majority neighbour.

It would not be the first transformation in Maliki's image since he took the premiership.

He already went from being a compromise candidate to a nationalist who battled militias within his own Shiite community and presided over a sharp decline in violence, to being accused of amassing power and sidelining partners.

Critics accuse the premier of micromanaging the security forces, reneging on deals with Sunnis and Kurds to devolve power and, in some cases, targeting political opponents.

Born in a predominantly Shiite town south of Baghdad, he joined the Islamic Dawa party - the oldest movement to oppose the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein - while at university.

He fled in 1979 and was sentenced to death while in exile.

Living in Iran and Syria, he coordinated cross-border raids into Iraq from Iran, and only returned home after Saddam's ouster in the 2003 US-led invasion.

Three years later, he was thrust to power.

Though initially seen as weak, he carried out a successful offensive in 2008 against the militia of powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, with US military support.

That won him plaudits across the communal spectrum, and he staked his reputation as a nationalist leader who had brought Iraq's raging violence under some semblance of control.

But since he was returned to the job in 2010 as the head of a national unity government, Maliki has faced near-constant political crises and a push for a vote of no confidence.

Yet Maliki is unfazed.

He blames the year-long surge in unrest that preceded the recent offensive on spillover from neighbouring Syria's civil war, and says a lack of political progress is down to an unruly coalition that snipes at him in public and blocks his legislation.

Whether or not he will compromise - and analysts question whether he will - the new realities created by the chaos engulfing Iraq could have a greater effect on communal relations than any single person, including the premier, can control.

"Rather than compromise, Maliki is likely to exploit the Sunni offensive to cement his political position," Ayham Kamel, Middle East and North Africa Director for Eurasia Group, wrote in a note to clients.

"The shape of the new political map is unclear but Maliki or any other leader will struggle to define and accept the new boundaries of Sunni-Shiite-Kurdish relations."