BAGHDAD — When a well-known journalist was shot dead at a checkpoint here last month, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki rushed to the scene. Speaking to a television camera, he promised “blood for blood.”
In a city where hundreds die every month from explosions and gunshots, it was unusual for the prime minister to focus on a single murder. That scene, though, coming as it did just before elections, was a vivid demonstration of what diplomats and analysts say is Mr. Maliki’s best and last hope for securing a third term as prime minister: playing the strongman, a role Iraqis, for better or worse, are accustomed to seeing in their leaders.
“Maliki is a man of power,” said Salah al-Robaei, 46, a university professor in Baghdad, who also called him “wise,” “tough” and a “great leader.”
A strategy of showing toughness may win votes among Mr. Maliki’s Shiite constituency, but as Iraqis prepare to vote on Wednesday in the first national elections since the withdrawal of American forces, it is far from certain that he will be able to win over enough others to lock down another term.
Many American officials would welcome his defeat. American intelligence assessments have found that Mr. Maliki’s re-election could increase sectarian tensions and even raise the odds of a civil war, citing his accumulation of power, his failure to compromise with other Iraqi factions — Sunni or Kurd — and his military failures against Islamic extremists. On his watch, Iraq’s American-trained military has been accused by rights groups of serious abuses as it cracks down on militants and opponents of Mr. Maliki’s government, including torture, indiscriminate roundups of Sunnis and demands of bribes to release detainees.
A long list of political rivals are determined to unseat him. Judging by their subtle calls for “change,” he may have lost the support of the Shiite religious authorities in Najaf, the holy city in southern Iraq, who hold great sway over Iraq’s Shiite majority. Many Iraqis, while acknowledging their desire for strong leadership, also say they are weary of the violence and political dysfunction that have defined life under Mr. Maliki.
Yet, Mr. Maliki’s prospects have brightened from six months ago, when he had few genuine accomplishments to point to. Heavy fighting against Sunni Islamist extremists in Anbar Province and other areas of the country has allowed him to campaign as a wartime leader and present himself to the Shiite majority as the leader of an existential fight that he has defined in starkly sectarian terms.
“All the elements are working in his favor,” said Izzat Shabender, a Shiite politician who was once allied with Mr. Maliki but now wants him out of power.
Referring to the crisis in Anbar in which Mr. Maliki’s military campaign against the insurgents has failed, a Western diplomat said, “It seems to be helping his electoral prospects.”
Mr. Maliki, 63, will face stiff opposition as he fights to remain in power. Iraqi voters are likely to deliver him a plurality of seats, political experts here say, but far from a majority that would assure him a new term. After the election, the back-room negotiating will begin, chiefly between Mr. Maliki and his Shiite rivals, but Sunni and Kurdish leaders will be involved, too.
The postelection period is expected to be messy and protracted, not atypical in Iraq, but this time experts say it could be even longer — perhaps as long as a year.
Iran, perhaps Mr. Maliki’s most important supporter as he consolidated power in recent years, has supported his re-election campaign with millions of dollars, according to American intelligence reports. But Iran has also funneled money to some Shiite rivals of Mr. Maliki, demonstrating that Iran’s chief aim is to maintain Shiite dominance, not necessarily Mr. Maliki’s rule.
Mr. Maliki, who rarely smiles and lacks any outward signs of charisma, has distinguished himself from other Iraqi politicians by keeping long hours, often leaving the office at 1 a.m. or later. He also rarely leaves the country and has kept his family here, while many other politicians have moved their families abroad. And, by all accounts, he shows no outward affinities for wealth and the trappings of power.
“He didn’t worry about protocol issues,” said the former American ambassador to Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, in an interview. “He had no problems coming to my residence or office.”
Mr. Maliki does worry, though, Mr. Khalilzad said, about former Baath Party officials’ mounting a coup.
It was Mr. Khalilzad who encouraged Mr. Maliki to seek the prime minister’s post in 2006, after concluding that his predecessor, Ibrahim Jaafari, was ineffectual and overly sectarian. In 2010, Mr. Maliki secured a second term with the backing of American officials, who thought he was likely to prevail anyway and appeared to be the most acceptable candidate to the fractious Shiite majority.
In an effort to bridge the political and sectarian divide in Iraq and guard against Mr. Maliki’s growing authoritarianism, the Obama administration had sought to persuade Mr. Maliki to share power with his bitter rival, Ayad Allawi, who was the leader of a bloc with broad Sunni support. But the effort failed, and Mr. Maliki never developed the inclusive government the White House had hoped for.
Mr. Maliki’s character, shaped by his decades in the political underground working to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime, has largely defined his governing style. In exile, in Iran and Syria, Mr. Maliki was in charge of military operations inside Iraq for the Shiite Islamic Dawa Party, a life experience that has instilled a lasting sense of paranoia that is deepened by the constant threat of assassination he lives under now.
“I think the very core of his problem is his fear,” said Maria Fantappie, Iraq analyst at the International Crisis Group. “He sees enemies everywhere. It can be the Kurds, the Sunnis, even his own advisers.”
In the campaign, Mr. Maliki has sought to blame the violence in Iraq on foreign Sunni countries, namely Saudi Arabia, and, by extension, Iraq’s own Sunni leaders.
“Voters have no excuse before God and history if they do not make the right choice,” Mr. Maliki said in a recent speech. “Iraqis know who is supporting the rebuilding of the country and democracy, and who is supporting terrorism and seeking to destroy the country.”
Ramzy Mardini, an Iraq expert at the Atlantic Council, said: “Maliki is not a democrat. He’s not a nationalist or sectarian ideologue. His ideology and doctrine are grounded in survivalism.
“In many ways Maliki is a typical Arab ruler: paranoid and conspiratorial,” he said.
In the village of Janajuh, Mr. Maliki’s hometown in southern Iraq, garbage is strewn across the irrigation canal that runs past the low, crumbling house that was his childhood home. The village looks like any other in Iraq: poor and run-down, with no evident sign that the country’s vast oil wealth has been put to use.
“They have done nothing,” said Shakur Jabour, one of Mr. Maliki’s cousins. “Look at the garbage.”
Mr. Jabour said the state of the village showed that Mr. Maliki had larger concerns.
“I’m telling you, in all honesty, when you look at this neighborhood, he says: ‘You are the same as any other place in Iraq. I can’t do anything special for you.’ ”
Many, though, are troubled by what they describe as Mr. Maliki’s attempt to build a family dynasty, which inevitably, for Iraqis, recalls the legacy of Mr. Hussein. He has given his son, Ahmed, broad, vaguely defined powers over security within the prime minister’s office and inside the Green Zone. And both of his sons-in-law, who work for his office, are running in the election.
Many of the campaign posters that have blanketed the capital, dressing the drab urban landscape in greens and yellows, call for change. So do ordinary Iraqis, their capacity for endurance in the face of suffering tested by a new surge in violence.
Wednesday’s vote will be the fourth since the American invasion in 2003, so Iraqis are familiar with the mechanics of elections. But they are also weary of what the voting has produced: bickering, corruption, violence and a sense of permanent stasis.
“My life?” said Firas Younis, 33, who owns a clothing store in the northern city of Mosul. “I don’t have one. Explosions, blast walls blocking the ways, no services. And because of all this my business has stopped.”
Despite all of this, Latif Rashid, a senior adviser in the office of President Jalal Talabani, said that many within Iraq’s political class believe that Mr. Maliki will find a way to stay in power for another term.
Mr. Rashid said that indications — anecdotal, at best, given the lack of reliable polling data in Iraq — are that Mr. Maliki retains strong support among Iraqis, partly because of a reluctance to change leaders when the country is facing a growing insurgency.
That Mr. Maliki seemed to be in such a strong position, despite the condition of the country and the rivals arrayed against him, is confounding, Mr. Rashid said.
“There are lots of things I don’t understand,” he said. “Do you understand why people are blowing themselves up? Do you understand why people are bringing car bombs to a school?”
Duraid Adnan contributed reporting from Baghdad, Yasir Ghazi from Seattle, and an employee of The New York Times from Mosul, Iraq.