BAGHDAD (Reuters) - An opponent of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said the premier's message of nationalism and inclusion was little more than a ploy to win votes in March's polls by appealing to Iraqis disgusted by sectarian destruction.
Saleh al-Mutlaq, popular among Iraq's once dominant Sunni minority, is not the only voice casting doubt before the elections on the nationalist line taken by Maliki, who heads a religious party founded to expand the clout of Shi'ite Islam.
"It's not possible for a party that has been sectarian from its beginning, for dozens of years, to suddenly become nationalist," Mutlaq said in an interview.
In 1957, the Dawa party's inaugural meeting was held in a Shi'ite religious leader's home. Dawa later went on to battle the secularist regime of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Arab who kept Shi'ite religious powers under tight control.
While Maliki's speeches are laced with repeated references to the importance of national unity and dangers of sectarianism, Mutlaq said Maliki was bound to be swayed by his party roots.
"Even if he personally believes sectarianism isn't the answer, he is forced to listen to the beliefs of others in the party and by its policy, which is fundamentally sectarian."
Mutlaq is hoping his alliance with Iyad Allawi, another secular politician and former prime minister, will win over Iraqis disillusioned by the religious parties that have dominated politics since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
To do so, their self-described progressive movement must poke holes in the nationalist, non-sectarian discourse adopted by two leading blocs, led by Maliki's Dawa party and Maliki's main rival, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI).
Mutlaq, an agriculturist who prospered in Saddam's Iraq, had a similarly withering assessment of ISCI, Iraq's largest Shi'ite party that has close ties to majority Shi'ite Iran.
Those dominant parties have failed Iraq since 2003, he said, by stacking ministries with flunkies, nudging security forces' loyalties toward party interests, and encouraging the sectarian mentality that brought epic Iraqi-on-Iraqi bloodshed.
Almost seven years after Saddam's ouster, the stable, prosperous Iraq envisaged by the Bush administration has not yet emerged. Many Iraqis complain their lives have become worse.
Despite a remarkable turnaround in Iraqi security and the tantalising promise of its oil sector, power supplies fall far short of demand, corruption is widespread, and jobs are scarce.
A number of recent high-profile bombings have jarred public confidence in local police and soldiers, and presented Maliki, who rode to victory in provincial polls a year ago on his claim of having turned around Iraqi security, with a major challenge.
"The fundamental problem in this country is that there is a government, but there is not a state or institutions of state. We want to build a country of institutions and a real state of law," Mutlaq said, referring to Maliki's State of Law coalition.
Again and again, Maliki has proclaimed that the era of sectarianism is over in Iraq.
"We began to gather people together anew, without discrimination on the basis of affiliations. This is part of national reconciliation," he told tribal leaders this week.
But some Sunnis blame him for failing to give them state jobs and for taking too tough a line on welcoming back those associated with Saddam's government.
Ali al-Adeeb, a senior Dawa member, said the prime minister's successful offensive against Shi'ite militias in 2008, a turning point for a man selected from relative obscurity, was proof he is no sectarian.
"Maliki is deeply convinced the country needs a nationalist policy ... This is the only thing that can govern Iraq in the future because it won't allow any party to dominate," he said.
Despite talk of inclusion, Mutlaq sees a limited role for other minorities, notably the Kurds, who make up a fifth of Iraq's population and have ambitions to expand the boundaries and influence of their largely autonomous northern region.
In Mutlaq's Iraq, both the president and foreign minister would be Arab. He complained that Hoshiyar Zebari, a prominent Kurd who has been foreign minister since 2003, and Jalal Talabani, a Kurd elected to the presidency in 2005, spent more time lobbying for Kurdish interests than thinking about Iraq.
(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)