Think of him as a chameleon. Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's Prime Minister, owes his survival to an ability to adapt his political persona to the prevailing circumstances. During his 24-year exile from Saddam Hussein's Iraq, he dropped his given name and went by "Jawad," to avoid detection by the dictator's spies. Returning to Baghdad in 2003, Maliki seemed no different from the legion of Shi'ite partisans who took up posts in the U.S.-installed interim government. He brought vigor and venom to his job on the committee responsible for purging the government of Saddam's mainly Sunni elite. He also spoke of reordering Iraq according to the fundamental principles of the Koran. In a couple of years, however, he had taken on a more conciliatory mien, speaking of communal harmony. In 2006, this earned him crucial U.S. backing as a compromise candidate for Prime Minister.
Until then, most Iraqis had never heard of him, and didn't know what to expect from this phlegmatic figure in ill-fitting suits. Maliki didn't help matters by constantly shifting his position on key issues. One moment he supported the radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr; the next, he was ordering Iraqi forces to smash Sadr's militia. One minute he was being described by President Bush as "my man"; the next, he was fulminating against U.S. interference in Iraqi politics. "It's like every six months there's a new Maliki," says a Western official in Baghdad. "And as a political strategy, it's genius: in a country as divided as Iraq, it's the only way to appeal to all people."
Now, three years into his premiership, the real Nouri al-Maliki may finally be revealing himself. Emboldened by his popular campaign against the Shi'ite militias, and by the U.S. military's success in turning the Sunni insurgency against al-Qaeda, Maliki has begun to project a persona instantly familiar to Iraqis, and to Arabs in general: the strongman. He has ordered the arrest of a number of prominent Sunnis, pushed aside rivals and undermined allies. In speeches, his language has grown increasingly belligerent, accusing those who disagree with his policies of working against Iraq. (See pictures of life returning to Iraq's streets.)
The new Nouri alarms many who knew the old Jawad. Sunni and Kurdish leaders have accused him of employing tribal councils to shore up his personal standing at the expense of rivals, just as Saddam did. Vice President Adel Abdel-Mahdi, a prominent Shi'ite, has openly criticized the centralization of power in the Prime Minister's office. "We don't want another dictator in Baghdad," says Maysoon al-Damluji, a secular Member of Parliament. "It worries us all that [Maliki] is beginning to behave like a tyrant."
Maliki, 58, hardly looks the part. With his permanent five-o'clock shadow and slack posture, he seems no more tyrannical than a demotivated schoolteacher, an impression underscored by his toneless speaking style. But there's no denying that his stature has increased. "I didn't know he had it in him," says Ridha Jawad Taki, a Shi'ite parliamentarian who has known Maliki since the 1980s, when both lived in Syria. "He has become self-assured, and very decisive." Those qualities were burnished in November, when Maliki overcame considerable opposition within Iraq's parliament to sign an agreement with the U.S. that requires the withdrawal of American combat troops from most urban areas this summer, and from Iraq altogether by 2011. Some factions wanted a faster withdrawal, others insisted on a delay. (Maliki rarely meets Western journalists; his office didn't respond to TIME's repeated interview requests.)
The latest version of Maliki will be put to the test on Jan. 31, when Iraqis vote in provincial elections. If the Dawa Party now a junior partner in the Shi'ite coalition makes big gains, it will be seen as an endorsement of the Prime Minister. Dawa officials have been playing up Maliki's tough-guy credentials, depicting him as the man who forced a reluctant U.S. to accept a withdrawal deadline.
It's a risky strategy. Some Iraqis say a strongman is just what they need to end Iraq's destructive sectarian politics. But at the polls, Iraqis have shown little appetite for tough guys, preferring to vote for diffuse coalitions of parties with little in common beyond sectarian identity. The cautionary tale for Maliki is Iyad Allawi, the country's first post-Saddam Prime Minister: he, too, portrayed himself as a strongman, but his secular coalition won barely 14% of the vote. "Maliki will go the same way as Allawi," says Abdel-Bari al-Zebari, a Kurdish MP. "Iraqis know that a strongman is not in their best interests."
Would a more powerful Maliki be good for the U.S.? The withdrawal deal served the interests of Barack Obama last year; both he and Maliki wanted a firm timetable, whereas President Bush opposed the idea. Officials close to Maliki say he was impressed with Obama when they met last summer. But the Prime Minister is no fan of the new U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Two years ago she expressed concerns about Maliki's sectarian sensibilities and called on the Iraqi parliament to replace him with a "less divisive and more unifying figure." Furious, Maliki said that Democrats such as Clinton were treating Iraq as "their property," and told them to lay off. But now that Clinton is Secretary of State, it would be just like Maliki to forget old animosities and present a friendly new face.