Still, this latest standoff with the Kurds could well be a game-changer for al-Maliki.
Firstly, he has managed to turn Sunni Muslim politicians, like al-Nujaifi, who are normally his most bitter rivals into mediators. And it is hard to ignore a possible connection with the series of elections scheduled for Iraq in 2013, particularly when, on closer inspection, one can see the potential gains for the both al-Maliki and Barzani.
Next year will see provincial elections nationwide in April, a regional parliamentary election and a separate provincial poll for the Kurdistan Region and, finally, a proposed early parliamentary election across the whole of Iraq. Clearly al-Maliki needs some breathing space to conduct the April elections without the fear of facing another no-confidence theat.
By placing his federal troops on the doorstep of the multi-ethnic Kirkuk – a disputed territory, which Iraq says belongs to them while the Iraqi Kurdish say it should be part of their region – the Iraqi Prime Minister is scoring points with Sunni Arabs based in, or near, the disputed areas. He’s championing Arab interests in the face of Kurdish ambitions to incorporate those areas into their semi-autonomous region. The disputed territory is the only zone where al-Maliki can shine if he intends to bring the Sunnis on board.
In electoral terms, al-Maliki really cannot afford to push the Sunni community any further away from him; he has been in conflict with several Sunni Muslim politicians lately. The trial of Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, for example, set many Sunni Muslims against the current government, pushing some Sunni Muslim leaders, including the al-Nujaifi, to call for the establishment of a semi-autonomous Sunni Muslim region similar to that controlled by the Kurds.
At the same time, Ayed Allawi, the leader of the Sunni Muslim-dominated opposition, Iraqiya, continues to search for an opportunity to instigate a potential vote of no confidence in al-Maliki. Previous plans to do this were scrapped due to fading support for the idea.