Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki has begun to appear more effective and more in control over the past six months, but the factors which have helped him could easily vanish, leaving him at the mercy of events and opposition groups.

Several major groups such as the Shiite Sadrist Mahdi Army, the Sunni Awakening forces, and even his Kurdish allies from the north have stopped fighting the government. But this was not because they had been militarily or politically defeated, but rather because they stopped challenging the government for their own reasons, giving Al Maliki the unusual opportunity to look very good.

Al Maliki heads the conservative Shiite party, Dawa, which ever since the post-war elections started has been allied to the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council headed by Abdul Aziz Al Hakim. This alliance won the provisional elections in January 2005 and as well as the follow up elections in December 2005.

Al Hakim comes from one of the most important Shiite families in Iraq, which has provided political and religious leaders for many decades. He is the brother of Mohammad Bakir Al Hakim, who was assassinated in 2003 when he was the leader of the party when it was called the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). It changed its name in May 2008 'to reflect the changing realities in Iraq', essentially recognising that the words 'Islamic revolution' did not work in the emerging democracy.

Al Hakim is about the only Iraqi leader that Al Maliki has not fought with, and he remains a steady partner in the coalition, although he and his party have been looking for more influence from within the power structure.


In the spring of 2007, the Mahdi Army - the tough Shiite militia led by Moqtada Al Sadr - was successfully fighting both the government and the SCIRI militias, and the US wanted to send in more troops to join the fighting in both Al Sadr City and Basra.

Al Maliki used a back-door communication channel through Iran to get the Mahdi Army to back down, and so won several short term gains: Al Sadr City and Basra were calm after August 2007, the extra US troops were not deployed, and Al Maliki came out looking good. Al Sadr has since announced that he will move to devote more time to his religious studies in order to qualify to become an ayatollah.

However, the Mahdi Army could move back to the offensive very quickly if it wanted to. The reason that it has agreed to back down is simply to give Al Maliki's government time to negotiate with more authority with the Americans over the withdrawal of US troops. Even the most inveterate of political enemies agree that the Americans should leave Iraq, after which they think that they can sort out the power balance to their best abilities, without the Americans joining in.

The Sunni tribal militias of the Sahwa (Awakening) Councils have beaten Al Qaida in their territories, and are enjoying a lot of American and government support at present. However, they are now very well armed and well trained, but they do not have any real political reason to stay loyal to the Shiite-led government.

They also are waiting for the Americans to leave, in the knowledge that they are better equipped than they have ever been, and they expect to defeat whatever comes their way. When the American money stops, they could easily cease to support the government.

The Kurds have followed their own way since before the removal of Saddam. They want the continuation of their semi-independent region in the north, and will resist anything which challenges that. They have not bothered Al Maliki very much, but recently the row over how to start the provincial elections started to hit at one of the Kurd's most important political aims: to gain control over Kirkuk.

There was a stand off in Diyala province as government troops pulled back from fighting the Kurdish peshmerga. At the same time, Al Maliki removed his foreign minister (a Kurd -Hushyar Zibari) from running the negotiations with the Americans, replacing him with a Shiite adviser from his own office.

The apparent peace is designed to help Al Maliki in the negotiations with US President George W. Bush's administration over the withdrawal of troops, which all Iraqi political players want. Al Maliki is delighted to be able to go to the Iraqi people, claiming that he forced a 2011 deadline for the last American troops to leave. It makes him look strong, and manages to remove the taint of having won his position through the US run elections and having run Iraq with US support.

In addition, the present illusion of peace in Iraq suits Bush down to the ground. He has managed to get the end of his term, and can claim a success in Iraq. And since the Iraqi political leaders want Al Maliki to negotiate with a strong hand, Bush is likely to continue to have his peaceful Iraq till the US elections are done and Status of Forces Agreement is signed. What happens afterwards could easily be very different.