BAGHDAD -- When a well-known journalist was shot dead at a checkpoint here last month, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki rushed to the scene. Speaking to a television camera, he promised "blood for blood."
In a city where hundreds die every month from explosions and gunshots, it was unusual for the prime minister to focus on a single murder. That scene, though -- coming as it did just before elections -- was a vivid demonstration of what diplomats and analysts say is Mr. Maliki's best and last hope for securing a third term as prime minister: playing the strongman, a role Iraqis -- for better or worse -- are accustomed to seeing in their leaders.
"Maliki is a man of power," said Salah al-Robaei, 46, a university professor in Baghdad, who also called him "wise," "tough" and a "great leader."
A strategy of showing toughness may win votes among his Shiite constituency. But as Iraqis prepare to vote today in the first national elections since the withdrawal of U.S. forces, it is far from certain that Mr. Maliki will be able to win over enough others to lock down another term.
Many U.S. officials would welcome his defeat. U.S. intelligence assessments find that Mr. Maliki's re-election could increase sectarian tensions and even raise the odds of a civil war, citing his accumulation of power, his inability to compromise with other Iraqi factions and his military failures against Islamic extremists. On his watch, Iraq's U.S.-trained military has been accused by rights groups of serious abuses as it cracks down on militants and opponents of the Maliki government, including torture, indiscriminate roundups of Sunnis and demanding bribes to release detainees.
A long list of political rivals are determined to unseat him. Judging by their subtle calls for "change," he may have lost the support of the Shiite religious authorities in Najaf, the holy city in southern Iraq, who hold great sway over Iraq's Shiite majority. Many Iraqis, while acknowledging their desire for strong leadership, also say they are weary of the violence and political dysfunction that have defined life under Mr. Maliki.
Yet, Mr. Maliki's prospects have brightened from six months ago, when he had few genuine accomplishments to point to. Heavy fighting against Sunni Islamist extremists in Anbar province and other areas of the country has allowed him to campaign as a wartime leader and present himself to the Shiite majority as the leader of an existential fight he has defined in starkly sectarian terms.
"All the elements are working in his favor," said Shiite politician Izzat Shabender, who was once allied with Mr. Maliki but now wants him out of power.
In 2010, Mr. Maliki secured a second term, with backing from U.S. officials, who thought he was likely to prevail anyway and appeared to be the most acceptable candidate to the fractious Shiite majority.
In an effort to bridge the political and sectarian divide in Iraq and guard against Mr. Maliki's growing authoritarianism, the Obama administration had sought to persuade him to share power with his bitter rival, Ayad Allawi, leader of a bloc with broad Sunni support. But the bid failed, and Mr. Maliki never developed the inclusive government the White House had hoped for.