Iraqi Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki’s all sorts of legal maneuvers after the election results to deny victory of his Sunni-backed secular Shiite rival suggest al-Maliki is preparing a long and bitter fight to hold on power. He risks serious damage to all the efforts to ease countrie’s sectarian tensions

Supporters of Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki chant anti-Baathist slogans at a protest in Baghdad. AP photo.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's postelection strategy suggests he is prepared for a long and bitter fight to hold on to power, even if it alienates the country's Sunni community and risks new sectarian warfare.
The Iraqi leader is trying all sorts of legal maneuvers to deny victory to his chief opponent, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, whose secular, nationalist bloc won the most parliamentary seats in the March 7 elections and presumably the right to try to form a new government.
Even if al-Maliki sticks with nominally legal measures, he risks serious damage to all the efforts to ease sectarian tensions which had begun to bear fruit three years after the U.S. troop surge. A resurgence of major violence would complicate U.S. plans to withdraw all its forces from Iraq by the end of next year.
The showdown has cast a spotlight on Iraq's judicial process, which some have said is far from independent and often subject to outside pressures. And in such a young democracy with little institutional knowledge or precedent upon which to draw, the constitution and laws passed by parliament are not always clear.
No issue is potentially more explosive than a committee's attempts to disqualify some winning candidates because of ties to Saddam Hussein's regime. Sunnis view the committee, led by a Shiite with ties to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, as nothing other than a group dedicated to purging Sunnis from government.
While al-Maliki does not directly control the committee, he has certainly benefited from its actions and has done little to deter it. At least four candidates targeted by the committee are from Allawi's party list, which includes many Sunnis and won significant voter support from the minority sect. If a court disqualifies enough candidates to tilt the race in al-Maliki's favor, that would be a huge provocation to Sunnis.
Even before the final vote tallies were announced Friday, al-Maliki was maneuvering to put himself in a better position, likely sensing the results were not going his way. The prime minister went to the Supreme Court on Thursday and asked for a legal definition of what constitutes the largest bloc. The constitution says the coalition with the largest bloc in parliament gets the first crack at forming a government.
Allawi's Iraqiya list has argued that this means their 91 seats - al-Maliki's State of Law list won 89 - give them the first opportunity. But the court ruled that the largest bloc could also be one created after election day through negotiations, giving al-Maliki time to find new partners and outmaneuver Allawi.
If al-Maliki forms a government with a rival Shiite bloc, excluding Iraqiya entirely, Sunnis could feel disenfranchised, said Meghan L. O'Sullivan, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School and a former deputy national security adviser on Iraq for President George W. Bush. "The Sunnis perceive that they `won' this election in the sense that Allawi, who was the person that they put most of their votes and support behind, has the most number of parliamentary seats. So their inability to be in government, or even be given the chance to try to form a government, after they won, could be explosive," O'Sullivan said in an interview posted online by the Council on Foreign Relations.
O'Sullivan said that although al-Maliki and Allawi, both Shiites, share an Arab nationalist outlook and a desire for a more centralized state, personality issues make a governing coalition between their two blocs highly unlikely. Sunnis, and even many Shiites, also suspect that al-Maliki is not sufficiently independent of Iran.
At a news conference via satellite from Baghdad with reporters at the State Department, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill declined to speculate on whether al-Maliki or Allawi would be able to form a coalition government. He said the prime minister has given no indication that he would not follow the law. "He has been very clear and very clear with us in private, very clear in public, that he will follow the law," Hill said.
Since the election, the prime minister has called for a manual recount of the vote, attacked the United Nations for not supporting him and angrily challenged the results. "It's straight power politics," Anthony Cordesman, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "You're seeing somebody who basically wants to retain power. Over time, he's begun to see himself as a leading strong figure who can move Iraq forward."
Al-Maliki's supporters defend the maneuverings as perfectly acceptable under the Iraqi constitution. "We raised our complaints, our appeals, and we will be loyal to the decision of the courts," said Sami al-Askari, a close confidante of al-Maliki.
Independent observers such as Hussein al-Sahi, a spokesman of The Sun Network, an NGO which monitors Iraqi elections, have defended al-Maliki, saying it's a stretch to say that al-Maliki's decision to consult the court would undermine democracy. "Al-Maliki is not Saddam who issued laws against international standards," al-Sahi said. "Al-Maliki does not have an absolute power."
But Allawi supporters say the tactics reek of opportunism designed to reverse the will of the people - and that security forces have issued arrest warrants for some of their candidates. "Obviously the prime minister is trying to find ways to sabotage Iraqiya's clear win," said Maysoun al-Damlouji, a spokeswoman for the Iraqiya bloc. "We are still the largest bloc in parliament."