Maliki down but not out

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Militants may have overrun large swathes of Iraq and he might face eroding domestic and international backing, but Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki remains many Iraqis' top choice to lead the country.

Experts have cast doubt on the incumbent's chances of keeping his post as factions struggle to form a government after April polls, but sectarian allegiance may yet rescue the Shia Arab leader, and a brutal onslaught by Sunni militants might have even strengthened his supporters' resolve.

A June 13 statement by the country's most senior Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, calling on Iraqis to join state forces battling jihadists, has helped rally Iraq's majority Shia around Maliki and bolstered his image as a bulwark against a perceived Sunni takeover.

"I think support for him has gone up," said student Abbas Saadeq, 21, citing what he saw as backing for the prime minister from Iraq's most senior Shia clerics, or marjaiya. "People understand that the marjaiya support the government, so the people support him."

Posters of the heavy-jowled leader still crowd Baghdad's skyline and checkpoints after April's parliamentary election, which his State of Law coalition dominated despite a litany of attacks in the run-up to the poll. Now, insurgents led by the jihadist Islamic State (IS) group, which is notorious for executing and crucifying opponents, are only about a two-hour drive from the capital's northern borders after a swift advance.

Iraq's army wilted at the beginning of the IS-led onslaught last month, which began in the northern province of Nineveh and spread at lightning speed.

Experts accuse Maliki of micromanaging the military and prioritising fealty and sect over competence, robbing the armed forces of unity and nationalist appeal. State forces have since bounced back somewhat, albeit with mixed results.

"What has helped Maliki is Daash," said a policeman in Baghdad who declined to be named, referring to IS's Arabic acronym. "It has allowed him to rally Shia behind him.

He knows now he can't rely on the army." The militants' advance was so rapid it prompted the rare call to arms by Sistani, triggering a massive mobilisation of Shia volunteers and fighters.

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Aaj Kal