Iraq's Maliki makes inroads among last year's foes

BAGHDAD, Jan 30 (Reuters) - Just nine months ago, Baghdad's Shi'ite Sadr City slum was besieged by government troops and under daily strikes from U.S. helicopters, while black masked fighters stalked its streets firing mortars at the Green Zone.

Residents huddled in their homes at night and took to the streets by day to chant insults at their hated foe, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

But on Saturday, when they cast their ballots in provincial elections, his slate might win many of their votes.

"I will vote for Maliki. All my family are voting for Maliki. All my district are voting for Maliki," said Fawziya Mohammed, a 55-year-old woman, out shopping on Friday.

"He has made our lives normal, at night and during the day. We no longer have to fear thieves taking our homes, our money, our cars."

Perhaps there is no better example of how quickly the political atmosphere in Iraq has changed over the past year than here, where a third of Baghdad's six million residents live in grinding poverty on streets choked with rubbish and traffic.

With anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr keeping a low profile after a government crackdown against his militia last year -- support on the streets is up for grabs.

Until mid-2008, Sadr City was a no-go area for mainstream politicians. Now it could hold one of the keys to winning control of the country in national elections later this year.


Maliki, once seen as a vacillating and weak figure, has repositioned himself as the proponent of a strong central state with a law-and-order message that resonates with many.

He won power in 2006 as a compromise figure selected by bigger Shi'ite groups, but is hoping Saturday's election will give him his own power base. The outcome will probably be mixed.

In many Shi'ite areas, the vote is still likely to expose Maliki's weakness. Across much of Iraq's southern Shi'ite heartland, his main rivals, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), are expected to maintain their grip on provincial power with an effective political machine and overtly sectarian pitch.

But among poor Shi'ites in Sadr City and other Baghdad slums, ISCI -- which was formed by clerics in exile in Iran and seeks autonomy for the south -- has little mass appeal.

Many still revere Sadr, whose anti-American rhetoric helped build a potent political movement on the legacy of adoration for his father, a populist grand ayatollah killed under Saddam Hussein. The Sadrists have backed a list of "independent" candidates, and their clerics have duly told people how to vote.

"Voting for lists other than this is a betrayal and he who does so is not one of us," preacher Mudhafar al-Moussawi told thousands of worshippers at Friday prayers in Sadr City.

Salwa Kadhim, 42, a woman out shopping, said Sadr's support was enough to deliver her vote."We respect Moqtada al-Sadr and we will elect this list because we love him and his father."

But Friday's prayers took place in the shadow of an Iraqi military position set up last year in the square opposite the Sadrists' office, a powerful reminder that Sadr's largely disbanded Mehdi Army militia no longer control the streets.

Maliki, whose own Dawa Party was founded by Sadr's uncle in the 1950s, has staked a claim to some of the Sadr movement's nationalist rhetoric. He also claims credit for winning a U.S. promise to withdraw within three years. But mostly his appeal is based on having reclaimed the streets from the armed men.

"Now we can go out at night. We can go everywhere and we don't fear any criminals," said Sahar Nasser, 37, who will cast her vote for Maliki's list. (Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Michael Christie and Samia Nakhoul)