BAGHDAD — Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has gotten a much-needed boost from the killings of two al-Qaida leaders and a court-ordered recount of some votes from the indecisive election at a time when he is fighting for his political life.
Even rival politicians acknowledge the joint U.S.-Iraqi operation Sunday that killed the al-Qaida leaders was a significant achievement for a prime minister who has seen his reputation for bringing stability to the country tarnished by a string of bombings in central Baghdad that have killed hundreds.
"What Maliki is saying is that 'We're not sliding into civil war and I'm the man that's preventing that,'" said Toby Dodge, an analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
Al-Maliki is keen to burnish his image as the leader who can secure Iraq, especially at a time when U.S. troops are preparing to go home.
He called a news conference Monday to announce the killings of al-Qaida in Iraq leaders Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri in an attack on their safe house near Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit.
"For sure, it comes at a time that helps the government," said Kareem al-Yacoubi, a member of the Iraqi National Alliance, which has been in talks with al-Maliki's State of Law coalition on forming a new government. Opposition from within the INA camp to al-Maliki's staying on as prime minister has so far prevented such a deal.
Other Iraqis agreed that the prime minister's image has improved as a result of the killings of the al-Qaida leaders – what the U.S. military called potentially the most significant blow to al-Qaida since the insurgency began.
"This act increases people's confidence in al-Maliki to protect the country," said Qassim Mussa, a 35-year-old Shiite from Baghdad.
Al-Maliki won another victory Monday when a court ruled in favor of his demand for a recount of 2.5 million votes in Baghdad – something that could make his secular rival Ayad Allawi's fragile two-seat lead in parliament disappear.
However, that decision could also raise the risks of destabilizing Iraq if it draws out the process of forming a government, leaving a political vacuum – fertile ground for more violence. The risks will be even higher if the minority Sunni population, which threw its weight behind Allawi, feels robbed by any change in the vote totals.
Many of Allawi's Sunni supporters view al-Maliki and his Shiite-led government as little more than a puppet regime of neighboring Iran, and will likely view any attempt to chip away at Allawi's lead with suspicion.
"For sure al-Maliki intends to exclude Allawi by using the recount and that would drown Iraq in more problems and violence," said Ahmed Aleem, a 41-year-old Sunni from western Baghdad.
Ever since the March 7 election, which gave al-Maliki's coalition 89 seats to Allawi's 91 in the 325-seat parliament, the prime minister has been trying to whittle away Allawi's lead. He has employed a variety of techniques, alleging fraud and irregularities and seeking court rulings to get a re-count.
Baghdad is the largest electoral district in the country, accounting for 70 of the 325 seats parliament, or one-fifth. Any change in the seat allocation in the capital could significantly alter the close election outcome.
Al-Maliki had demanded the recount, even though U.S., U.N. and Arab League officials all praised the election as free and fair.
A recount doesn't guarantee al-Maliki will boost the 26 seats he has in Baghdad or take away from Allawi's 24 seats, but it does open up the possibility.
"In a recount, anything can happen," said Joost Hiltermann, from the International Crisis Group. "Basically you end up creating a new process, maybe less supervised and maybe more opaque, with a greater likelihood that it will be rejected by those who lose out in the recount."
Dodge compared the situation to the previous nationwide parliamentary elections in 2005, which were also followed by prolonged negotiations to form a government and left a political vacuum that allowed the insurgency to flourish.
Allawi raised the possibility Tuesday that there had been pressure on the court which decided on the recount, noting that the ruling came almost a month and a half after the voting.
Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin, Mazin Yahya and Hamid Ahmed contributed to this report.