BAGHDAD—Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, struggling for his political future in a snarled, months-long contest to form a new government here, warned Wednesday that failure to return him to power would lead to Iraq’s descent into the violence and sectarian strife that dominated the country when he took over in 2006.
At times confident and joking, occasionally combative, al-Maliki said in an interview that he would resist efforts to curtail his authority if he did return. Only a strong leader, he insisted, could navigate the challenges ahead for a country bracing for an American military withdrawal and still beset by the remnants of an insurgency.
Al-Maliki’s remarks were defiant, even stubborn, and underlined one of the seminal issues in the crisis that followed Iraq’s landmark parliamentary elections in March and in the prolonged negotiations that have ensued to form the next government: In a country with a history of dictatorship, what power will the prime minister wield?
"I will not be a prime minister with the job of a traffic cop—’You can go now,’ ‘you can come,"’ al-Maliki said in his office, where he heads a caretaker government. "I will be either a prime minister, under the Constitution, or not a prime minister at all."
Stripping the prime minister of powers, he said, "would lead to a weakening of control over the country, and those responsible will be blamed for its collapse."
Speculation on the return of al-Maliki, who turns 60 this month, would keep any Las Vegas odds maker busy. His remarkable ascent from relative obscurity with a mix of impetuosity and decisiveness has won him popular support and united much of Iraq’s political class against him.
The 89 seats he won in the 325-member Parliament fell far short of his advisers’ estimates. Outpolled by a secular and Sunni coalition led by Ayad Allawi, a former interim prime minister, he and his allies spent weeks trying unsuccessfully to change the results with recounts, court challenges and campaigns to disqualify winning candidates.
But Iraqi politics these days are a carnival house of mirrors, where no one really believes anyone else, much less trusts them. Promises are made in the vaguest of terms. "There are no red lines" is as close as anyone usually gets to a commitment. Al-Maliki incumbency alone—and the baggage each of his rivals carries—has led diplomats and even his detractors to suggest that a second term still remains an even bet.
"I expect to," al-Maliki said of returning to power.
The new Parliament convenes Monday, in a session that will be largely symbolic, as both Allawi and al-Maliki’s coalitions fight over who has the right to form the next government. Allawi insists that he does, as the top vote-getter in the election. But al-Maliki has cited a court opinion that would give that right to an alliance he formed with a rival Shiite coalition in May. Together, they are just four seats short of a majority.
That new alliance seems shaky at best. The two have yet to even agree on a name for their union, and al-Maliki seemed to acknowledge Wednesday that there was trouble. He said negotiations were still under way with what he described as "some elements" of the rival Shiite list, and he signaled his willingness to reach a separate deal with the faction that was long most adamantly opposed to him—the followers of Moktada al-Sadr, a populist cleric whose candidates polled second only to al-Maliki’s among Shiite voters.
"There are steps toward reaching an agreement with the Sadrists," he said.
The talks are intricate even by Iraq’s standards, with its distinctive mix of the intimate and combustible, where bargaining shows a remarkable propensity toward deadlock. Outwardly friendly rivals often go back decades, having shared time in exile.
Yet the stakes they are negotiating are perhaps higher than at any time since the United States overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003. The issues range from the fate of the contested city of Kirkuk to the very power of the prime minister and cabinet around him.
Some politicians have suggested that they would sanction al-Maliki’s return only if he agreed to reorient power away from the prime minister’s office and vest it in the cabinet. Al-Maliki has in the past complained that his post already lacks authority—burdened by a cabinet that answers to individual parties and not him. In the interview, he rejected more restrictions, suggesting that any compromise would be difficult.
"Every country needs a strong leader, but especially Iraq, because of all its problems and challenges and because it is not stable," al-Maliki said, his tone turning sharper. "If he’s not firm," he added, "he’ll turn into a feather in the face of the wind."
Dour, with a stern bearing, al-Maliki has won support not for his charisma, often lacking, but for what Iraq is no longer—a country mired in a sectarian war, sections of its territory ruled by insurgents and its capital too dangerous to roam at night. His admirers respect his decisiveness, crucial, they say, in having dealt with Iraq’s challenges.
"If the state is led by a weak leader, the old days will return, I fear," he said.
But al-Maliki willingness to test the limits of his authority by gathering power in his hands and sending the military against militias and even his own rivals has angered many. His critics contend he is overly insulated by a small circle of advisers, prone to suspicion and given to taking disputes personally. His animosity toward Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish president, was well known; he has not met Allawi in years.
In the interview, he spoke darkly of neighboring countries’ intentions; they were interfering, he said, in every party but his. Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, Turkey and Iran all share borders with Iraq, although al-Maliki declined to single out any of them. (The United States, he said, "was more an observer than someone intervening in this process.")
Despite what some saw as al-Maliki’s own demagoguery in fanning anti-Baathist sentiments before the vote, he blamed his Sunni and secular rivals for playing the sectarian card, encouraged, he said, by those same foreign powers.
In a candid moment, though, he acknowledged his own disappointment about an election and a country where political choices were still dictated by identity.
"We thought we had gone further in eradicating sectarianism than reality has shown," al-Maliki said. Regrettably, he said, the election had returned Iraq to "square one."