By Missy Ryan
BAGHDAD, Feb 5 (Reuters) - Once viewed by Shi‘ite Muslim partners as malleable, and by Washington as a sectarian leader unable to halt bloodshed, Iraq’s prime minister has emerged as a nationalist credited with rescuing his country from civil war.
Doubts about Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s durability and political strength have even begun to turn into the opposite -- criticism that he may emerge as a new strongman.
"We will not accept another dictator in Iraq," said Saadi al-Barazanchi, a leader in the Iraqi parliament of the Kurdish bloc, an ethnic group slaughtered under former strongman Saddam Hussein and which fears its autonomy could be threatened by Maliki’s calls for a strong centralised state.
Dour yet resolute, Maliki did not himself run in last month’s regional elections to pick powerful provincial councils.
But a bloc that he backed scored major victories in parts of the Shi‘ite south against the formerly dominant Shi‘ite political force, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, setting the stage for Maliki’s Dawa Party to do well in parliamentary elections at the end of the year.
Maliki, a little-known politician in Iraq before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 ousted Saddam, was a compromise pick to lead a wobbly coalition government in 2006.
Born in a village south of Baghdad, Maliki was a student when he became involved in the Dawa party, founded in the late 1950s with the goal of promoting the role of Islam in public life in response to rising secular Arab nationalism.
The party was driven underground after Saddam took power in 1979, and Maliki was condemned to death during his years agitating against Saddam from exile, mainly in Iran and Syria.
Initially seen as a Shi‘ite Islamist, Maliki’s willingness to put aside sectarianism and quell violence was called into question in a leaked U.S. government memo in 2006, just as Iraq was descending into bloodshed between Shi‘ites and Sunni Arabs.
Sunnis inveighed against him for failing to curb Shi‘ite militias and many Iraqis dismissed him, and the entire political class, as inept, corrupt, and driven by personal vendettas.
Yet Maliki, who comes across as a dishevelled technocrat with his rumpled suit and five o’clock shadow, changed in the eyes of many Iraqis when he took on Shi‘ite militias in southern Iraq and Baghdad last spring with U.S. military backing.
He has been strengthened by the sharp drop in violence across Iraq and also by his tough line in demanding a firm withdrawal date from Washington for the 140,000 U.S. troops still in the country. U.S. forces must leave by end-2011.
He has also established tribal "support councils" around the country to broaden his popular base.
SOME FEAR NEW STRONGMAN
But Maliki’s growing popularity and confidence have exacerbated tensions with rival Shi‘ites and with minority Kurds, who are part of his fragile coalition but who have spoken out against his ambitions to strengthen the central government.
The outgoing U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, dismissed as "certainly overblown" complaints that Maliki was assuming "dictatorial powers" by establishing the support councils and specialist security forces that answer to him.
Yet Iraqi critics and some U.S. officials in private still warn that democracy is far from firmly rooted in a country -- and a region -- that has known little but dictatorship. Maliki energetically campaigned during the election, promoting a law-and-order message.
Candidates in his coalition, which includes Turkmen and Shi‘ite Kurds, seized on his newfound popularity, showing photos of themselves shaking hands with Maliki in campaign posters.
"Definitely we are worried about these big numbers supporting Maliki," said Mithal al-Alusi, a prominent secular lawmaker. "This is a result of the prime minister giving government support to his list," he complained.
Kurds in particular fear an increasingly powerful leader in Baghdad who might be able to shelve their dreams of expanding their semi-autonomous northern enclave.
Mahmoud Othman, a leading Kurdish lawmaker, said he hoped that Maliki’s success would bring "greater responsibility regarding the country’s problems, especially the problems between his government and the Kurds." (Reporting by Aseel Kami, Ahmed Rasheed and Waleed Ibrahim in Baghdad, Shamal Aqrawi in Arbil, Sherko Raouf in Sulaimaniya; Editing by Michael Christie and Samia Nakhoul)