As the Islamic State (IS) is rapidly gaining territorial and political control over key territories, oil fields and refineries in Iraq and Syria, domestic, regional and international stakeholders are calling for the resignation of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to pave the way for a political resolution to the crisis. Maliki, whose political bloc won the 2014 parliamentary elections by a small margin, asserted his will to stay in power by stating that calls for the formation of a national salvation government “represent a coup against the constitution” and seek to “eliminate the democratic experience”.
Despite his refusal to step down, the parliament elected Sunni Islamist Salim al-Jubouri as the new speaker on July 14, 2014. By Iraqi custom, the speaker is Sunni, the President is Kurdish and the Prime Minister is Shia-Arab.
Prime Minister Maliki has been accused of partisan politics which have played into the hands of Sunni insurgent groups like the IS. His consolidation of power has compromised the legitimacy of Iraq’s political, security and economic institutions. Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister, Saleh al-Mutlaq contended in 2011 that Maliki’s “dictatorial power” will lead to a civil war and divide the country. Maliki’s key backer, the US, too is conceding that his divisive policies have contributed to the current crisis.
Nouri al-Maliki was born in 1950 in the village of Janaga in the Karbala province of Iraq. He is believed to have been inspired by his grandfather who represented the Shia clergy in the 1920 armed uprising against the British occupation of Iraq. Maliki joined the ‘underground’ Shia Islamist Dawa Party in the 1970s after the Arab countries’ loss to Israel in 1967. Following a crackdown on party members by Saddam Hussein’s forces, he escaped to Syria in October 1979.
The execution of Ayatollah Baqir al-Sadr – one of the founders of the Dawa party — the suppression of Shia uprisings in southern Iraq, the massacre of almost seventy of his relatives and the destruction of Shia villages and shrines radicalised Maliki. He helped set up guerrilla cells in Iraq and facilitated suicide attacks and assassinations targeted at Hussein’s regime. He helped integrate Dawa members across the region from Iran to Lebanon and also oversaw the military training camp in Iran from 1981 onward.
Iran’s efforts to co-opt the Dawa as a proxy in its war with Iraq splintered the party and Maliki was further disillusioned by growing ties between Damascus and Iraq in the 1990s. Thus, following the US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein, Maliki moved back to his hometown in April 2003. He served as board member of the de-Baathification committee and spokesman for a coalition of Shia parties (United Iraqi Alliance) before being short-listed for the Prime Ministerial post by former US Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad.
Maliki assumed the office of the Prime Minister in mid-2006, in an environment of civil war wherein Shia militias were engaged in a sectarian battle with Sunni insurgent forces, including the al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Maliki secured political power by bypassing parliamentary oversight to fill up military and political institutions with Shia loyalists and removed potential rivals from power.
He circumvented the defence and interior ministries by creating institutions like Office of the Commander in Chief, which centralised his control over security forces, the intelligence apparatus, elite security units like the Baghdad Brigade and other counter-insurgency bodies. Post the elections in 2010, he used the delay in forming the new government to appoint himself minister of interior and defence as well as the national security advisor. Following opposition from other political blocs he relinquished the posts, while retaining control over their functions.
Marisa Sullivan of the Institute of War Studies writes, Maliki’s “desire to centralise and maintain power…stems more from political paranoia, distrust and fear than from strong ideological impulses”. However, his internal policies have polarised Iraqi society along sectarian lines as counter-insurgency strategies targeted Sunni and Kurdish Iraqis.
A prime example is the marginalisation of Sunni Awakening Councils Militia (or Sons of Iraq), a paramilitary force cultivated by the US to fight insurgent groups like the AQI. Maliki, initially unreceptive to the idea of arming Sunni fighters, conceded to US pressure and also promised them a role in state-building thereafter. However, many of these fighters were later removed from the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and arrested, pushing them towards radicalisation.
Maliki has been accused of politicising the security forces by awarding senior military positions to Shia loyalists, earning the ISF the label of “Maliki’s militia”.
Consequently, thousands of Kurdish troops defected from the ISF in 2013, requesting to join the Kurdish peshmerga. Tensions with the Kurds intensified after counter-insurgency operations were expanded into disputed areas of Kirkuk, Diyala and Salah ad-Din, which are under the jurisdiction of the Kurdish Regional Government. KRG President, Massoud Barzani called this an “unconstitutional step…against the Kurdish people, the political process (and) co-existence”.
Maliki used de-Baathification to target not only Sunni opponents but also rival Shia leaders like Muqtada al-Sadr. In 2008, he led a security operation against Sadr’s Iranian-backed Mahdi Army in Basra. Maliki also targeted the leadership of the secular al-Iraqiyya bloc to whom his State of Law Coalition lost by a few percentage points in the 2010 parliamentary elections. Despite the electoral loss, Maliki formed the government with the support of Iran, the US as well as the KRG.
The bloc was established by Ayad Allawi, former interim Prime Minister, who was a political threat to Maliki after he secured the support of Shia clerics for the Prime Minister’s post in 2010. Maliki ordered the arrest of Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, also of the Iraqiyya bloc, on charges of terrorism in 2011.
Large-scale detention of Sunnis as well as excessive control over anti-corruption bodies, the judiciary and the security forces have led to deterioration in the security situation and provided a significant recruitment base to the Islamic State and other insurgent groups. Even the relative stability of 2007 and 2008, for which Maliki’s supporters have sought credit, was a direct result of the success of the “Awakening” initiative.
Maliki, thus, faces challenges to his power not only from receding American support but also from political rivals like the Sadrists and the al-Iraqiyya bloc, and the rise of Sunni insurgent groups like the Islamic State. It is also being reported that Iraq’s highest Shia authority, Grand Ayatollah Sistani has communicated his opposition to renewing Maliki’s term. However, despite losing support of his core backers, Maliki is holding on to his bid for the third term owing to his marginal electoral success.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.
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