Political deadlock in Iraq’s National Assembly, Baghdad’s parliament, means that it may be until after mid-August before it tries to elect a speaker, two vice presidents, and a new prime minster, which are steps in forming a new government following April elections. Bargaining goes on backstage; hence, it is critical to examine how Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki might be outmaneuvered from office.
Domestic politics are against Maliki being selected to form the new government. He is unacceptable to key stakeholders: religious leaders; Iraqi Kurds; Sunni Arabs; and many Shia factions, such as followers of Moqtada al-Sadr. They do not trust Maliki’s pledges and believe he uses State institutions to consolidate his hold on power.
Maliki lost confidence of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose opinion carries great weight. In 2014, Sistani has been critical of the government. Michael Knights, an expert on Iraqi politics at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, considers the Sistani critique a blow to Maliki.
In the March 2010 elections, Maliki’s State of Law Party won 89 seats of 325 possible and was second to Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya list, which had 91; the Kurds won 57. Pushed by Tehran, backed by Washington, and supported by Irbil (Kurdistan), Maliki not Allawi formed the government. Washington and Irbil presently have buyer’s remorse.
Now defunct, Iraqiya was a cross-sectarian coalition, which Maliki targeted with politically-motivated charges. He made allegations against former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, the highest-ranking Sunni Arab in Maliki’s government. In my 2013 interviews with Hashemi in Brussels, he provided evidence that he was unlawfully besieged by Maliki. Hashemi’s mistreatment is a vivid indication of the political shadow cast by outside military presence: Fewer than 24 hours after the last American combatants departed Iraq, Maliki ordered the arrest of Hashemi. Without boots on the ground, Washington’s influence plummeted.
During September 2010, Qassem Suleimani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force Commander, held a meeting with Iraqi political leaders in Qom, Iran. Tehran’s aim included smuggling into Iraq rocket-assisted mortars to kill Americans and thereby compel a withdrawal, and reinforcing the influence of Iran’s Shiite proxies in Iraq. Suleimani persuaded Sadr to back Maliki for promises that remain unfulfilled, and buyer’s remorse characterizes another former ally.
Suleimani exercised oversight for De-Baathification of Iraqi Sunni opponents of Iran by Ahmad Chalabi. Let the buyer beware of this candidate for prime minister: U.S. Army General Ray Odierno (now Chief of Staff) describes Chalabi as being in the pocket of Tehran and in close contact with Suleimani. Covert arms transfers that targeted American and loyal proxy militias in his portfolio helped Suleimani play the role of "tough trader" in Iraqi politics. The backstory to such actions by Tehran is that the Islamic Republic of Iran is the main threat to Iraq not the Islamists. If Washington wishes to defeat them, first coerce Iran to cease destabilization of Iraq.
Sunni Arabs never had faith in Maliki and many are in open rebellion against him now. When peaceful protests erupted in Anbar Province, a Sunni stronghold west of Baghdad, Maliki ordered a ferocious crackdown in Anbar’s main City, Ramadi. Forces of the tribes had liberated it, not those of the Islamists. Though the media focuses on nonstate extremists, the threats to Maliki are his domestic political opponents in the Sunni tribes.
In the April 2014 Iraqi elections, Sunnis boycotted. There was no voting in about 80 percent of Anbar, where Sunni tribes controlled Falluja and parts of Ramadi. The Sunni vote split among several parties, including the United List led by National Assembly Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi; the Arabiya bloc led by Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq; and the Wataniya list led by the moderate Shiite, Ayad Allawi. Voter fraud that benefited Maliki casts a cloud over these returns.
It is hard to imagine a Sunni as prime minister due to the Shiite majority; so an option for Sunnis and Kurds is to align with Allawi. Despite not having a ground combat presence, Washington could use its leverage from the threat to employ airstrikes against Islamists. During June 2014, rumors abounded in Baghdad that President Obama informed Maliki Washington would not order airstrikes unless Maliki resigns; Obama then might support Allawi as prime minister.
It is in the U.S. interest for Obama to support Allawi rather than back an increasingly unpopular, narrowly-based Maliki. Many Iraqis feel he is the problem and cannot be part of the solution. Allawi held the office in 2004 and pursued inclusive politics that attracted Sunni and Kurdish support; thus, he is an ideal candidate for Washington. Allawi can hold the country together to the satisfaction of Sunnis, Kurds, and Shiites.
If Maliki remains de facto prime minister despite expiration of his term, it would be an opportunity for Tehran and a threat to Washington. The longer President Obama waits, the greater the possibility of extremists hijacking the Sunni rebellion and Tehran gaining even more of the political-military upper hand in Iraq. If not now, when? Now is the time for Obama to break the political deadlock in Baghdad’s parliament with quiet support for Allawi.