BAGHDAD -- His campaign poster, jostling among the thousands that line capital streets, has a message of unity: "Together we build Iraq."
But as the country prepares for its first elections since the withdrawal of U.S. troops, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's political rivals accuse him of the opposite: stoking sectarian divides and dismantling its hard-fought democracy.
No party is expected to win a majority in Iraq's parliamentary election Wednesday, the first since the final U.S. troops pulled out of the country 21/2 years ago, leaving the results difficult to forecast. The unpredictability of Iraqi politics was underlined in the last elections four years ago, when the political bloc that won the greatest share of the vote lost the premiership to Mr. Maliki in the political horse-trading that followed.
Most observers agree on two things, however: Mr. Maliki is unlikely to give up without a bitter fight, and he has unrivaled power and resources behind him to help him cling on. Since he took power eight years ago, in the country's first elections after the U.S. invasion, his critics have accused him of centralizing power.
After the last elections, in 2010, Mr. Maliki took on the roles of minister of defense, interior and national security -- positions he still holds. He also is head of the armed forces.
A law passed by parliament that would have prevented him from running for a third term was overturned by the courts last year. The judicial system is under his influence, rights groups say. Meanwhile, rival parties accuse him of sidelining their candidates from the elections.
"This is not what we promised the Iraqi people. This is not why we fought Saddam," said Ayad Allawi, a secular Sunni who won the largest proportion of the vote in 2010. "This is not why allied forces lost lives. It's an agonizing situation." He said 38 candidates from his political bloc have been barred from the elections on "various pretexts," but the country's electoral commission said 34 have been banned from all parties.
Mr. Maliki's office contends that it cannot interfere with court decisions, and that the appointment of key ministerial posts has been hampered by Iraq's parliament. His spokesman, Ali al-Moussawi, said that after Iraqis vote Wednesday, Mr. Maliki is hoping to secure a stronger coalition, with negotiations underway on alliances.
"Nouri al-Maliki is looking for a political majority government, the ground is already being set for this majority alliance and an understanding already exists," Mr. Moussawi said. "Before, we couldn't achieve this, and the government had to include all the parties. This has been proven to be a failure."
But even if Mr. Maliki wins the largest proportion of the vote, building alliances to form a government may be a hard task. In his years in office, he has caused friction, including among fellow Shiites. Last month, supporters of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr burned pictures of Mr. Maliki in the streets. Mr. Maliki had insulted Mr. Sadr's political acumen, and Mr. Sadr retorted by describing the prime minister as a "dictator."
Supporters of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, another Shiite party expected to perform strongly in the elections, also took to the streets in Basra in solidarity. At a recent election rally, crowds threw empty bottles at the prime minister as he spoke, according to local news reports and videos that circulated online.