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Iraq's most influential people

Arab World Materials 28 February 2010 10:36 (UTC +04:00)
Iraqis will elect a new parliament on March 7 in the first national polls since 2005.
Iraq's most influential people

Iraqis will elect a new parliament on March 7 in the first national polls since 2005.

Although violence in the country has receded, Iraq faces major challenges with an ongoing insurgency, immature government institutions, and a political system riven with feuding, Reuters reported.

Much of Iraq's public life is driven by the personalities of powerful people, both inside and outside government. Below is a list of some of Iraq's most influential people.

GRAND AYATOLLAH ALI AL-SISTANI

Aging cleric Sistani is Iraq's most revered Shi'ite religious leader. Since 2003, his decrees have had the gravity of law, and Sistani, around 80 years old, has repeatedly urged Iraq's Shi'ite majority to take part in elections.

While Sistani may represent a force for unity among Iraq's increasingly fractious Shi'ites, his health is poor and aides have sought to dispel rumors that the cleric has been seriously ill or on the brink of death.

PRIME MINISTER NURI AL-MALIKI

Maliki, who hails from a small town in Iraq's Shi'ite south, was a leader in the Islamic Dawa party, agitating against Sunni Arab dictator Saddam Hussein outside Iraq before 2003.

An obscure compromise candidate in 2006, Maliki has emerged as a powerful force since he began battling Shi'ite militias in 2008 and consolidating power in the prime minister's office. Last January, his message of security and law-and-order took him to victory over rival Shi'ites in provincial polls.

But many analysts say Maliki's star, and that of his State of Law' electoral list, has begun to fade following a series of catastrophic bombings that have eroded public confidence.

PRESIDENT JALAL TALABANI

Talabani, a Kurd in his mid-70s, has been Iraq's president since 2005. A bon vivant who has undergone heart surgery, Talabani has largely stayed out of the election fray, but it's possible he might welcome another term.

Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) has joined forces with fellow Kurds in the elections. But the PUK has taken a hit from a new reform movement that ate into its influence in Kurdish parliamentary elections last summer.

KURDISH REGIONAL PRESIDENT MASOUD BARZANI

Barzani, a former Kurdish guerrilla fighter, has been a fierce critic of Maliki's efforts to centralize the Iraqi state and hold back Kurdish ambitions to expand the boundaries of their largely autonomous northern region.

Often seen in traditional Kurdish baggy trousers and a turban, Barzani has courted foreign support for Iraqi Kurdistan in the face of fears from countries like Iran and Turkey about the ambitions of their own Kurdish minorities.

The grip of Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), along with the PUK, on the Kurdish region has been close to absolute, but a local opposition is gaining power.

VICE PRESIDENT TAREQ AL-HASHEMI

Born in 1942 to a prominent political family, Hashemi is the highest-ranking figure from Iraq's Sunni Arab minority.

Hashemi has been an outspoken critic of the government and has positioned himself as a defender of the interests of Sunnis, whose disempowerment after 2003 fueled sectarian conflict.

Hashemi is running with the secularist Iraqiya list, headed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi'ite.

FORMER PRIME MINISTER IYAD ALLAWI

A perfect English speaker who received his medical degree in London, Allawi headed Iraq's transitional government from 2004-05 at a time when the United States pulled the strings in Iraq and the country was descending into civil war.

Allawi is hoping to capitalize on Iraqis' disenchantment with the Islamist parties that have dominated Iraq since then.

Allawi's list has been dogged by troubles, though, stemming from the decision by a controversial government committee to ban Iraqiya co-leader Saleh al-Mutlaq from the race due to supposed ties to Saddam's banned Baath party.

AMMAR AL-HAKIM, HEAD OF THE SUPREME ISLAMIC IRAQI COUNCIL

Last year, Ammar al-Hakim replaced his father, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, as head of Iraq's largest Shi'ite religious party when the elder cleric died of cancer.

The soft-spoken Hakim, in his late 30s, is not a candidate with the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), which was established in Iran, but he plays a leading role in the largely Shi'ite Iraqi National Alliance (INA) it leads. The INA may give Maliki the biggest run for his money.

SHI'ITE CLERIC MOQTADA AL-SADR

Sadr, the scion of a Shi'ite religious family who galvanized anti-U.S. sentiment following the 2003 invasion, has faded from the political scene since he vanished -- ostensibly to embrace religious studies in Iran -- more than two years ago.

Sadr's Mehdi Army, once a feared militia, has largely laid down its arms but his political movement is trying to make a comeback. It may do so as part of the Iraqi National Alliance.

OIL MINISTER HUSSAIN AL-SHAHRISTANI

Shahristani, a nuclear scientist who Saddam jailed for a decade, has been criticized for failing to quickly boost oil output. But he can now claim credit for a series of oil deals that could catapult Iraq into the top ranks of world oil giants.

Shahristani took a tough line with global oil firms lining up to do business in Iraq and has also been praised for leading a largely transparent oil auction process. He is running for parliament as part of Maliki's coalition.

AHMED CHALABI, HEAD OF IRAQI NATIONAL CONGRESS

Chalabi, a U.S.-trained mathematician, was a favorite of the Bush administration before the 2003 invasion and is said to have been instrumental in helping Washington decide on war.

Chalabi, a Shi'ite who is close to Iran, has been largely sidelined since he failed to win a seat in parliament in 2005. But he triggered a furor recently as head of the independent Justice and Accountability Commission, which announced a ban of 500 candidates, including leading Sunni Arab candidates.

The political crisis appears to have been overcome, but U.S. officials are warning against the renewed influence of Chalabi, a secularist who is running with the Iraqi National Alliance.

GENERAL RAY ODIERNO

Odierno was selected to replace General David Petraeus as the head of U.S. troops in Iraq in 2008.

Odierno, a bear of a man, was a key proponent of President George W. Bush's troops surge in 2007, which is credited with helping tame sectarian violence, but was also criticized for heavy-handedness as a combat commander early in the war.

Odierno is expected to oversee the rapid drawdown of U.S. troops from just under 100,000 now to 50,000 by September 1, as the Obama administration shifts military resources to Afghanistan.

U.S. AMBASSADOR CHRIS HILL

Hill, who worked in the Balkans in the 1990s but has no previous Middle East experience, was a surprise choice for President Barack Obama's first ambassador to Iraq. A veteran U.S. diplomat, Hill is best known for leading the Bush administration's talks on North Korea's nuclear program.

In an era of waning public U.S. influence in Iraq, the plain-spoken Hill is criticized by some Iraqis for an overly forceful role in seeking to end Iraqi political feuds.

IRANIAN AMBASSADOR

The flipside of the U.S. presence is Iranian influence.

Having fought an eight-year war with Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, Tehran has taken an active interest in the rise of Shi'ite political dominance in Iraq. U.S. officials accuse Iran of arming Shi'ite militia. Iran says the blame for violence lies with the U.S. troops who invaded Iraq.

Former Iranian ambassador Hassan Kazemi-Qomi has just left. His successor, Hassan Danaifar, who served as deputy commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps navy according to Iranian state television, has yet to arrive.

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