|Al-Maliki's State of Law coalition promises security and an end to sectarianism [REUTERS]
Nouri al-Maliki became Iraq's prime minister on May 20, 2006, as the country appeared to be unravelling due to sectarian violence and militia warfare.
On March 7, 2010, al-Maliki will be running as the head of the State of Law coalition in the country's second parliamentary election since the US-led invasion ousted the Baathist government in 2003.
Al-Maliki was born on June 20, 1950 in Twaireej, a central town south of Baghdad, to a religious Shia Muslim family steeped in nationalistic pride.
His grandfather was a prominent poet and one of the participants in the 1920 Iraqi revolution against British rule; he would later be awarded with a ministerial position under the Iraqi monarchy.
As a university student at the Usual-al-Din College in Baghdad, al-Maliki was drawn to the rife political scene on campus and quickly joined the underground Islamic Dawa Party in 1970.
In 1973, he graduated with a degree in Islamic Studies.
Return to Iraq
The 1970s were a difficult time for political parties; as the Baathists cemented their control following the bloodless 1968 coup which brought them to power, many politicians fled to neighbouring countries or went underground.
In 1978, the Iraqi government stepped up its arrest campaign against the Dawa party after many of its members were implicated in acts of subterfuge.
A year later, al-Maliki fled for Syria but the Iraqi government nonetheless tried and sentenced him to death in absentia.
Between 1982 and until the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, al-Maliki spent his years between Syria and Iran. His first breakthrough into the world of politics was in 1989, when he returned to Syria and established the Syrian Branch of the Islamic Dawa party.
After 24 years of self-imposed exile, al-Maliki returned to Iraq shortly after April 2003, when US forces entered Baghdad and effectively ended the Baathist's 35-year rule.
He then became a senior advisor to Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the Dawa Party secretary-general, who had formed the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) political bloc with other once banned Shia Islamic groups such as the pro-Iranian Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the populist Sadr movement, among others.
When Iraq's Sunni community boycotted parliamentary elections in 2005, the UIA was swept into power and al-Jaafari became the first elected prime minister of Iraq.
But al-Jaafari came under severe criticism as violence continued to plague the war-ravaged country and when members of his own UIA coalition started to hint at forcing him to step down, his deputy, al-Maliki was chosen as a compromise alternative.
Al-Maliki assumed power during a very difficult time. It was mere weeks after the revered al-Askari Shrine in Samarra had been bombed and nearly destroyed - the Shia parties blamed Sunni militias for the act and Iraq appeared on the verge of a bloody and ruthless civil war.
Several Shia militias, included the Sadrist Mahdi army, were accused of leading ethnic cleansing campaigns against Sunnis in Baghdad and the outlying areas. Within months, millions of Iraqis would flee to neighbouring Jordan, Syria, and Turkey.
Meanwhile, groups affiliated with al-Qaeda in Iraq launched attacks of their own, targeting both Iraqi Shia and Sunnis, and US forces. During his early days as prime minister, al-Maliki was accused for tolerating Shia militias while at the same time pursuing Sunni paramilitary forces.
By the end of 2006, however, the tide began to change as Sunni tribesmen started to form their own Awakening Council (sahwa) militia, tasked with patrolling streets, towns and neighbourhoods. The sahwa fought a vigorous campaign to root out al-Qaeda groups including foreign fighters, and managed to significantly bring the level of violence down.
This encouraged al-Maliki to take on Shia militias and a massive arrest campaign against the Mahdi army was launched; Muqtada al-Sadr, the militia leader fled the country.
Nationalism and reconciliation
By 2007, with security returning to much of Iraq, al-Maliki launched a massive public relations campaign to strengthen his popularity among tribal leaders.
Al-Maliki raised the slogan of national reconciliation shortly after he assumed power and visited the predominantly Sunni areas of Anbar and Nineveh provinces.
He told Sunni tribal elders that he managed to prevent Iraq from slipping into civil war and end sectarian influence in the Iraqi government and society. He urged them to join him in a bid for national reconciliation.
In an interview with the Egyptian daily Al Ahram on December 19, 2009, he said: "I feel proud that I managed to reveal the ugly face of sectarianism. I made every Iraqi feels ashamed when sectarianism is even mentioned."
But his critics say the prime minister has been amassing personal power, building relationships that strengthen his position and do little for Iraq's need for national reconciliation and reconstruction.
Both Shia and Sunni opponents say he has taken decisive unilateral decisions, often without consulting members of his own coalition. His support of sahwa groups put him at loggerheads with other powerful Shia groups.
His reluctance to make national reconciliation an officially sanction state aim has also made many Sunnis suspicious that he may renege on promises to foster nationalism rather than sectarianism.
Al-Maliki has also been criticised by the US and Sunni Arabs for maintaining very close ties with Iran and allowing Tehran to interfere in domestic politics.
In early 2009, he split from the UIA and formed the State of Law coalition. The two Shia political blocs are running separately in the March 7, 2010 parliamentary elections.