The quiet former Arabic-literature scholar has demonstrated surprising resilience, establishing himself as Iraq's first national leader since Saddam Hussein. His three years of consistent leadership, a prospect that initially seemed remote, augurs more stability for Iraq as U.S. involvement diminishes.
Since he assumed power in May 2006, Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki has gone from an introvert and quiet scholar to become a tough new leader.
How would you rate Nouri al-Maliki's performance as Iraq's prime minister? Though he still faces formidable problems at home, Mr. Maliki is positioning himself as the person capable of moving Iraq beyond the security concerns that have consumed the country since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. In meetings Wednesday with President Barack Obama and other officials, he will seek foreign investment and stronger ties to the U.S. in education, culture and trade.
For nearly two years as prime minister, Mr. Maliki enraged friends and enemies at home with blunders and inaction. U.S. officials worried he was the wrong man for the job.
But he survived early attempts to dislodge him and took increasingly risky gambles. He held his ground in talks over a security deal with Washington, burnishing his nationalist credentials. Earlier this year, he and a slate of allies won big in local council elections across Iraq.
Most notably, he showed a willingness to confront militiamen from his own Shiite Muslim sect, a crackdown that helped him win over skeptical Sunnis. Even some political enemies concede that after years of political instability and seemingly unbridgeable sectarian divides in Iraq, Mr. Maliki has helped give the country a sense of cohesion.
Yet some Sunni critics say Mr. Maliki still holds a sectarian agenda, pointing in part to the recent arrests of several Sunni local leaders. The prime minister remains a polarizing figure in Baghdad, his growing strength and confidence now spurring some critics to accuse him of taking on the airs of a dictator.
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Transcript: 'Being Prime Minister Was Not Something I Wanted'
Mr. Maliki sat down with Gina Chon recently at his office in Baghdad, ahead of his U.S. visit this week. Read an edited portion of the interview about security and political challenges, power sharing and his vision for the next Iraqi elections.
Mr. Maliki says he rules for the benefit of all Iraqis, including his critics.
"I've taken on everyone, Sunnis and Shias," he said in an hour-long interview at his official palace here earlier this month. "The Iraqi people now understand who is just talking, and who is talking and doing."
When he returns to Baghdad, Mr. Maliki will face some of the biggest challenges in his premiership. After months of relative calm, Iraq suffered high-profile attacks as U.S. combat troops withdrew from Iraqi cities in June; on Tuesday, attacks in Baghdad and elsewhere killed at least 18 people. Sharply lower oil prices, meanwhile, have imperiled Iraq's ability to fund its security services and rebuilding efforts.
Even some traditional allies are skeptical. Sheik Jalal al-Din al-Sagheer, a senior member of the Shiite alliance that includes Mr. Maliki's party, says the prime minister has improved security but hasn't attracted needed investment.
"There's a man for each era," says Mr. Sagheer. "For the next chapter, the focus needs to be on economic development. And I think we need a different man for this job."
Mr. Maliki was, all along, an unlikely man.
Born in 1950 just south of Baghdad, he received a master's degree in Arabic literature. As a student he became an activist against Iraq's ruling Baath Party and fled the country in 1979, he says, because of death threats against him from Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein. Living in Syria and Iran, he became a leader in the Shiite-led Islamic Dawa Party, which opposed Mr. Hussein from abroad.
Mostly unknown in Iraq, he returned after the U.S. invasion. He was elected to parliament and became head of its defense committee in 2005.
As the U.S. prepared to hand power to the Iraqis, would-be leaders came to the fore. The Pentagon favored smooth-talking Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi. Some Iraqis embraced secularist Ayad Allawi. But top contenders couldn't hold on to popularity or political capital.
After 2005 national elections, parliamentarians from more than 20 parties formed a government and quickly jettisoned then-prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. The demands of the vacant premiership -- bridging fractious parties, secularly divided Iraqis and oft-resented Americans -- appeared all but impossible. Several contenders demurred.
Mr. Maliki raised fewer objections than other candidates among parliamentary factions. Iraqis and American advisers saw little indication that the introverted lawmaker would turn into another strongman. Rivals of his Dawa party expected Mr. Maliki could easily be removed later.
Mr. Maliki started the job with little enthusiasm or confidence. "All the blocs were pressuring me," he said during the interview. "I was very upset and felt uncomfortable."
He assumed power in May 2006, three months after the bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra that triggered waves of reprisals against Sunnis and threatened to touch off a sectarian civil war.
Critics questioned whether the Shiite prime minister would rein in Shiite extremists and militias. In November, a leaked White House memo questioned the prime minister's will to rise above sectarian agendas. Mr. Maliki reinforced such fears the next month, disregarding American advice and pushing ahead with the hasty execution of Mr. Hussein, a Sunni.
In early 2007, as thousands of U.S. troops poured into Iraq as part of the Pentagon's surge strategy, Mr. Maliki struggled to manage his security services. U.S. and Sunni critics said he was slow to purge the Shiite extremists who had infiltrated Iraq's army and police.
He slept little. In the early-morning hours, he says he would call checkpoints across Baghdad for security updates. He also rushed to flash points, visiting Samarra after a second mosque bombing there in June 2007.
"That's something we saw over and over again, the willingness at a moment of crisis to personally step into the fight," says former U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker. "He's not a grandstander. He's an introvert, an intellectual. He's everything a politician isn't."
Mr. Maliki struggled with the trappings of power. During Dawa party meetings, officials reserved the head of the table for their prime minister. But when Mr. Maliki entered the room, he usually slumped into the closest seat to the door, recalls Dawa lawmaker Ali Alaak.
Mr. Maliki's rivals, sensing weakness, threatened no-confidence motions. He considered resigning several times, close aides say. In a meeting in mid-2007, Mr. Maliki vented to advisers about what he said were backroom plots to remove him from power.
"He was very angry because everyone was working against him. But we told him, 'If you leave, who will replace you? There will be chaos. This is bigger than you. It's about Iraq,'" says Sami al-Askary, a lawmaker and close Maliki confidant. "After that, he did not talk about resigning again."
Sectarian violence escalated. Members of parliament's Sunni bloc were increasingly resentful that Mr. Maliki hadn't moved to disband Shiite militias and expand Sunnis' role in security matters. In August, the largest Sunni bloc withdrew from Mr. Maliki's governing coalition.
Though his parliamentary rivals had enough votes to pass a no-confidence motion, they couldn't agree on an alternative candidate. During a visit to Iraq in December 2007, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Mr. Maliki's critics that the U.S. wouldn't support plans to remove him, but she also told Mr. Maliki that he was failing. Mr. Maliki, in a private meeting with Ms. Rice, made a fresh promise to crack down on Shiite militias and extremists, say people familiar with the meeting.
The turning point for Mr. Maliki came in early 2008. Iraqi and U.S. forces were making headway against Sunni insurgents. But Shiite militias -- including the Mahdi Army, led by cleric Moqtada al-Sadr -- had largely taken over Basra, an oil hub in the country's south.
In March, Mr. Maliki approved an Iraqi military assault to recapture Basra. He explained the plan to U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, then the top American commander in Iraq. Gen. Petraeus said in an interview that he was stunned, telling Mr. Maliki that such an operation needed at least six months of planning.
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An Iraqi police officer at a mosque in Baghdad.
Mr. Maliki responded that he would move in three days, with or without the Americans. The Iraqi army launched the offensive on March 25. Mr. Maliki flew to Basra to oversee the fight. Coalition forces provided backup, including air cover.
The prime minister's military-operations center in Basra was shelled constantly. One of Mr. Maliki's security advisers, who was a close friend, was killed in front of him during a mortar attack, he says. U.S. officials begged Mr. Maliki to return to the capital.
Many of the gunmen were killed or captured, and the Shiite fighters said they would leave the streets. Even so, the operation didn't end in decisive victory: As the militants faded away, skeptics worried they would regroup to fight again. U.S. commanders privately scoffed at the offensive.
But in the following weeks, Basra remained safer. Mr. Maliki's political rivals applauded his aggressive moves against the militias. The prime minister grew in confidence and assertiveness.
"I was not like other politicians in their air-conditioned rooms," Mr. Maliki said during the interview. "Everybody wanted to drag me back to Baghdad. I told them if I don't win in Basra, there will be no Baghdad."
He ordered similar offensives in Baghdad's Sadr City district and in the southern city of Amarah. Everyday Iraqis saw a Shiite willing to battle members of his own sect to secure Iraq. In July 2008, Sunnis returned to the government.
That summer, Mr. Maliki took what he says was a further step to buttress local security by forming regional "support councils," made up of tribal leaders and funded by the prime minister's office. Critics began to complain Mr. Maliki was using the ad hoc councils to tighten his grip on power.
"He was behaving like a dictator, and still is," said Sunni lawmaker Saleh Mutlaq.
Next, Mr. Maliki took on Washington. Through the spring and summer of 2008, Iraqi and U.S. officials hashed out a bilateral security agreement to set the legal framework for continued U.S. military presence in Iraq.
Mr. Maliki lobbied for a specific timeline for troop withdrawal, something he knew his parliament would require but that then-President George W. Bush resisted. Mr. Maliki told U.S. negotiators he had to get every "punctuation mark approved by parliament," according to Mr. Crocker.
Mr. Bush relented, agreeing to a pact that called for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops by the end of 2011. Iraq's parliament approved the deal in November.
"It was painful in the extreme hammering it out," Mr. Crocker says of the deal. Mr. Maliki, he added, struck an agreement that "allowed him to survive."
The prime minister's new tough-talking persona bolstered him as he crisscrossed Iraq late last year campaigning for allies in provincial elections. Emphasizing strong government and rule of law, he spoke without notes, his Arabic-literature training giving him an eloquent command of the language.
In the January vote, his allies captured the most votes for local councils in nine of 14 provinces, beating out religious-focused parties.
Big challenges remain. Mr. Maliki hasn't been able to push through some legislation seen as vital to rehabilitating Iraq. A long-stalled petroleum law, for example, has been held up in part by escalating tension between Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government, which rules a semiautonomous enclave in the north. In June, Kurdish politicians approved a draft constitution for their region that claims several pieces of contested land, including oil-rich Kirkuk.
Mr. Maliki and Kurdish President Masoud Barzani aren't on speaking terms, say staff members of both men. Mr. Maliki says he aims to address the issue with negotiations, and has sent emissaries to Iraqi Kurdistan. "We will use a soft feather to solve all these problems," Mr. Maliki said in the interview.
Looking ahead to January's national parliamentary elections, Iraq's first since 2005, Mr. Maliki says he believes he has Iraqis' support. But there's no guarantee he can assemble a slate of candidates to take on a political system still dominated by sects and ethnic identities.
Mr. Maliki says that even now, he doesn't have enough authority to overhaul basic services, blaming the open hostility of ministers from rival factions. Still, he has come to embrace his role.
"I was forced to be prime minister," Mr. Maliki says. "But now, at least I can say I've done something for my country."