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Iraq's ex-leader still looms large

Iraq's ex-leader still looms large

Amid the country's many problems is a barely veiled rivalry between its current and previous prime minister

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Iraq's ex-leader still looms large

Nouri al-Maliki

The former prime minister has given signals of running again in Iraq's next election, due in 2018.

BAGHDAD — Inside the walls of his shaded villa in the heart of Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, Nouri al-Maliki still greets his visitors in the same marble-floored office where he worked for eight years as prime minister.

As one of the country's three vice presidents, he now holds a largely ceremonial position in the government of his successor, Haidar al-Abadi.

But whether al-Maliki has given up his quest for power is increasingly in question as he sets about widely publicized battlefield tours, meetings with tribal elders and visits abroad.

In an interview at his villa, he denied any desire to reclaim his former position and pledged support for al-Abadi, who six months into the job is trying to quell the chaos convulsing Iraq. Al-Maliki is often blamed for much of it.

But he does not rule out that he could one day return.

"Based on my popular support base, which still exists and is strong, it's possible," he said, indicating that he is setting his sights on Iraq's next election, due in 2018. "Legally and constitutionally, it's possible. But it's the Iraqi people's choice."

Al-Maliki's looming presence poses a challenge for al-Abadi as he tries to win back ground from Islamic State extremists and repair rifts with Iraq's minority Sunnis and Kurds. The latest offensive to retake the city of Tikrit has highlighted the prime minister's lack of control over Shiite volunteers.

Al-Maliki "still has a role, and he's not finished," said Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a lawmaker from the former prime minister's State of Law bloc.

A Western diplomat based in the region said there are deep concerns about what al-Maliki may be up to and little doubt that he is trying to undermine al-Abadi. "He's irredeemable," the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Al-Maliki, the diplomat said, appears to wield influence over more members of Parliament than does al-Abadi and seems to have more support in the security institutions.

On a March trip to a town near Tikrit, al-Maliki greeted the forces as if still in power.

Since leaving office, he has become a particular champion of the "popular mobilization" units, the legions of mostly Shiite volunteers, many of whom answered a call from Iraq's top Shiite cleric to sign up to fight.

Still, not everyone believes al-Maliki can make a comeback.

"He had a big failure in administering the country," said Izzat Shahbandar, a former lawmaker from the State of Law coalition who remains friends with al-Maliki. "There is no Iraqi power — Sunni,

Shia or anyone else — who will support him."

Al-Maliki and al-Abadi, both Shiites, have drastically different ruling styles, perhaps rooted in their disparate experiences of exile during the rule of Saddam Hussein.

Al-Abadi, an English speaker who worked as an electrical engineer in Britain, is seen as cozy with the West. Al-Maliki, whose U.S. backing fell away in the final years of his rule, is closer to Iran, where he lived for seven years.

On billboards around Baghdad, al-Maliki's pictures still loom large.

Al-Abadi, in contrast, has ordered that no posters of himself be displayed, in an attempt to break with the country's tradition of personality cults.

When al-Maliki ventures from the Green Zone, he does so in a big convoy of armored SUVs.

Al-Abadi won praise for publicly visiting a shrine in Baghdad accompanied by only two bodyguards.

The rivalry between the two men is thinly veiled.

"What he's doing is what's possible — not the ambition that is required, but what's possible," al-Maliki said of al-Abadi's progress. He conceded, though, that his successor is constrained by the country's shaky finances and fragile security.

Whether al-Maliki can make a comeback is an intense subject of speculation.

Asked why al-Maliki believes he can return to power, his friend Shahbandar chuckled and said, "Saddam Hussein is dead, and even he believes he can make a comeback."

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