"It's good to be the king," Mel Brooks famously intoned in the 1981 film History of the World, Part I. What is often forgotten is that Brooks was portraying French King Louis XVI -- who would soon be found guilty of treason and executed by guillotine in 1793. As Iraq approaches its March 7 parliamentary election, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki can no doubt relate: While he currently sits at the top of the political hierarchy, a diverse array of opponents have assembled coalitions in an attempt to unseat him.
Maliki's "State of Law" coalition, which bases its appeal on a continuation of the security gains that the country has enjoyed since 2007, still remains strong. By shucking off the religious Shiite parties and adopting a more nationalistic discourse, Maliki has charted a course that, for many Iraqis, has represented a clean break from the sectarian violence that shook Iraq from 2003 to 2007.
But Maliki's erstwhile allies aren't taking rejection lightly. Each of the individual members of the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), which the Shiite parties formed to oppose him, can't match his electoral weight -- but taken together, they represent a formidable threat. They have also revitalized their support by loudly backing the efforts of Ahmed Chalabi's de-Baathification commission, which has disqualified hundreds of prominent Sunni candidates from the election. By raising fears of a resurgent Baath Party and thereby stoking sectarian sentiment, the INA aims to pull voters in Shiite strongholds such as Karbala and Najaf back into its arms.
If the INA is attacking Maliki's credentials as a Shiite leader, the prime minister also faces a challenge of his nonsectarian, national security bona fides in the form of former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Allawi's al-Iraqiyya coalition originally seemed to be the most credible nonsectarian alliance, including Shiite and Sunni parties of equal strength. But al-Iraqiyya has been hobbled by the exclusion of its candidates by the de-Baathification commission, and the INA-fueled increase in sectarian tension poses the greatest risk to Allawi's electoral prospects.
Meanwhile, the Kurdish parties have stood outside this conflict, waiting for the dust to settle. They will hold at least 43 seats, out of the 325 seats in the Iraqi parliament, and will present a unified front on the national stage. Their key concerns are the status of the contested city of Kirkuk, claimed by the Kurdistan regional government, and the Kurdish share in oil revenues. Should a governing coalition hope to add the Kurds to its ranks, it will have to bow on these wedge issues.
What follows is the definitive guide to the parties and coalitions that will shape the future of Iraqi politics. While the central players usually hog the media spotlight, Iraq also has a bewildering array of smaller political parties representing minor ethnic groups, or political trends that have fallen by the wayside in recent years. On the final page of its guide FP delves into the fringes of the Iraqi political world.