The Middle East Channel

Maliki’s manuevering in Iraq

In the 2010 parliamentary elections in Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his State of Law Coalition emerged as the head of government over rival Ayad Allawi and the Iraqiyya Party, which had won the election by a slim majority of two seats. Since then, Iraqis and Iraq watchers have been tracking Maliki’s efforts to ...


In the 2010 parliamentary elections in Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his State of Law Coalition emerged as the head of government over rival Ayad Allawi and the Iraqiyya Party, which had won the election by a slim majority of two seats. Since then, Iraqis and Iraq watchers have been tracking Maliki’s efforts to strengthen the authority of the central government at the expense of parliament, provincial governments, and other independent checks and balances of post-Saddam governance. Most see Maliki’s actions as intended to consolidate his personal power while containing his weaker and fractious opposition, whether it is secular or sectarian. This being post-Saddam Iraq, Maliki’s moves carry an uncanny resemblance to the manner in which Saddam Hussein gained power. 

Much of the current dilemma in Iraqi politics dates back to the post-Saddam coalition crafted out of the opposition movement led by Iraqi exiles — primarily the Iraqi National Congress (INC) constructed by Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi National Accord led by Ayad Allawi, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), an umbrella Shiite organization created in Iran and composed of factions led by the al-Hakim family and the Dawa movement, and the two Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Masoud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani. The SCIRI, KDP, and PUK were part of the INC but acted independently of Chalabi, especially after the fall of the Baathist regime. Along with representatives of Iraq’s tiny Turkman and Christian communities, they came together briefly in the 25-person governing council appointed by Coalition Provisional Authority head Paul Bremer. It formed the core of the factions involved in succeeding transitional governments and the committee chosen to write the 2005 constitution.

The constitution reflects the fears and hopes of Iraq’s populations not favored by Saddam — the disenfranchised and mistrusted Shiite (approximately 55 percent of the population), the Kurds (20 percent), and other Islamic, pre-Islamic, and Christian ethnic and religious groups, as well as Sunni Arabs who had shared the benefits and risks of serving Saddam. Their goal was to prevent a return to dictatorial autocratic power by a sole leader and strictly limit the powers of the central government. The federal government was vested with power to defend the state and protect its people but real authority for decision making on control of resources, distribution of wealth, and local security was to lie with the provincial governments that controlled local politics and security services. Provinces could veto national laws and decide to form regional governments, such as the Kurdistan Regional Government, should a number of them choose to do so. Issues too difficult and divisive to decide in 2005 — such as provincial boundaries, disputed territories (such as Kirkuk), and control of Iraq’s oil resources — were kicked down the road to be resolved at a later and more auspicious moment.

The constitution did not create a confederation as the desired form of government. Rather, it designed a central government with few powers and weak authority and assigned greater authority to provincial governments. The structure is somewhat akin to the Articles of Confederation that formed the first Constitution of the United States, but it is the Kurds who insist that the Iraqi Constitution created a confederal form of government. Embedded in this assumption is a second Kurdish aspiration — that the government and the allocation of power be shared according to Iraq’s primary sectarian and ethnic divisions of Sunni Arab, Shiite Arab, and Kurd, similar to the Lebanese model of government. By this plan, Iraq’s Kurds would have ownership of the presidency, the foreign ministry, and a guaranteed presence in cabinet, parliamentary, and military posts. It is a vision not shared by the non-Kurds of Iraq and strongly opposed by Prime Minister Maliki.

Most of the current controversy involves the current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki had survived more than 20 years of exile in Tehran and Damascus as a functionary in the banned Dawa Party. He was a discreet and seemingly unthreatening presence in the short-lived government of Ibrahim al-Jaafari. From his base in the Dawa Party, he first marginalized his opponents within the party and then moved against Prime Minister Jafaari, also a Dawa Party member, replacing him as prime minister in 2006. At first, Maliki seemed to be the right ruler for the times — he moved against the Sadrist militia in Baghdad and contained feuding among rival Shiite factions in Basra. His government moved to bring oil contracts and distribution of oil revenue under control but other moves have a much darker side. During a presentation at the National Defense University in May, British scholar Toby Dodge described Maliki as "muscular" and as "a grey functionary," a man who has long known he has many enemies and now has moved to consolidate power both brutally and efficiently. The prime minister, Dodge said, is "consolidating an authoritarian regime, the ramifications of which are rather stark" and he urged the United States to "adopt a policy to combat this rising dictator." He has gone from the last man standing to a direct and profound threat to any remnants of Iraqi democracy."

Maliki began by targeting the military, the courts, and the ministries. As the U.S. military, in particular the U.S. Special Forces, transferred responsibility to their Iraqi counterparts, Maliki created several special brigades within the army as counter-terrorism brigades and moved them out of the defense ministry to report directly to him. The office of commander-in-chief was moved to the prime minister’s office and staffed with friends loyal to him. He then consolidated the police and army into one office under one general in order to control all security functions. His special operations forces, which Iraqis refer to as Fedayeen al-Maliki, a term reminiscent of Saddam’s infamous fedayeen Saddam, number approximately 4,200 and are under his direct control.

Dodge and others note that by retaining the title and role of defense and interior minister, moving special security units out of the defense ministry, streamlining the military hierarchy, and controlling high-ranking appointments, Maliki has circumvented the military chain of command and, in effect, coup proofed the military. He has also moved to tighten control over the intelligence and security services. As in Saddam’s time, Iraq now has six separate intelligence services overseeing each other and everyone else. According to Dodge’s figures, 933,000 people are employed in the Iraqi Security Forces, an estimated 8 percent of the Iraqi workforce and twelve percent of the male population. Other sources describe Maliki as targeting midlevel intelligence-officers to drive them out if they are seen as threats to him. The effect has been to undermine the coherence of the chain of command and fracture the ability to produce and utilize actionable intelligence. Shiite security forces masquerading as militias maintained secret prisons, conducted kidnappings and targeted killings with apparent impunity. Dodge estimates that given Maliki’s control over special security, intelligence, police, and prisons, no one in Iraq’s growing security apparat would dare challenge him. Dodge is almost certainly correct.

Maliki has made similar moves toward political consolidation. Borrowing Allawi’s popular tactic of building a secular, Iraqi national coalition, Maliki tried to build a pan-Iraqi coalition in the months leading up to the March 2010 election and wooed disaffected Sunni Arab leaders unhappy with Maliki’s chief rival Ayad Allawi’s secular and cross-national Iraqiyya Party. When this proved insufficient to win over Sunni Arab and secular supporters, he turned to sectarian rhetoric. He moved closer to Shiite extremist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militia he had previously shut down and leaders arrested, and accused his rivals of supporting the return of the Baathists and the purge that would follow their return. When the Iraqiyya Party with Sunni Arab support won 91 seats and Maliki’s State of Law party only 89, Maliki rejected the results and as commander-in-chief declared that without a recount there would be a return to violence. Although the constitution said the party winning the majority in the elections had the first right to form a new government, the court decided that a post-election coalition could take that right from the party winning the most seats. Sadr’s joining Maliki gave the prime minister the authority to move forward and ignore Iraqiyya and its leaders.

In April 2010 in an effort to paper over the bitterness of the "lost" election, Maliki went to Irbil, capital of the Kurdistan Regional Authority, to negotiate with the Kurds and prominent Sunni Arab politicians, including parliamentary leaders Nujayfi and Salih al-Mutlak and Iraqiyya leader, Allawi. He agreed to a 15-point agenda which promised a new degree of power-sharing among Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite Arabs and Kurds and the appointment of a Sunni Arab and a Shiite Arab to head the defense and interior ministries. He also promised to create a National Council of Strategic Policies to oversee, approve or veto any major legislation after the prime minister signed it. Leadership of the council was promised to Allawi. Maliki, however, reneged on his commitments. He refused to name a defense minister or an interior minister or establish the special commission and Allawi in turn refused to compromise.

By late 2010, Maliki had brought the supreme federal court under his direct control. In January 2011, the judiciary, described by Toby Dodge as "pliable," ended the independence of several agencies established during the U.S. occupation that were supposed to oversee elections, protect human rights, and fight corruption under his control and placed them under direct control of the prime minister’s office. For example, the courts found the Independent Higher Education Commission’s (IHEC) link to the legislative branch of government to be a violation of the separation of powers. Several months later, its chairman, who had worked to preserve the integrity of elections from Maliki’s manipulation, was arrested and charged with corruption. Dodge also claims that in 2010 the Higher Judicial Council ruled that new legislation could only be proposed by the cabinet, giving the prime minister and not parliament the ability to propose legislation. The right of parliament to question ministers was also ended. If true, then this would be a major set-back for the institutional checks and balances the United States hopes to ensure in post-Saddam Iraq. On the day of the U.S. withdrawal ceremony in Baghdad in December 2011, Iraqi security forces surrounded the residences of several prominent Iraqi Sunni Arab politicians, including Deputy Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, to arrest him on charges of coup plotting in 2006 to 2007. Maliki also threatened Iraqiyya leader Salih al-Mutlak and Speaker Osama al-Nujayfi.

Dodge blames lack of interest by the international community, the long months of negotiation between Maliki and Iraqiyya, and the bizarre Supreme Court intervention which gave the 2010 election to a post-election coalition of Maliki plus the Sadrists for the prime minister’s success. That may be, but a more serious shadow falls over the prospect for free and fair elections in 2014. The court case against Hashemi and the Irbil Agreement had been clever strokes by Maliki as was the arrest on charges of corruption in 2012 of the director of the IHEC, which had produced the fair and open 2010 election. The charges were old ones (payment of $125 bonuses to IHEC workers) but were alleged to be payments made to local bosses. Maliki’s message must have been clear in leaving the director in prison on questionable charges and claiming that these new institutions were not included in the constitution. Who would challenge him?

Maliki is seen by many Iraqis — mostly Shiite and perhaps some Sunni Arabs — as a brave nationalist willing to move against sectarian extremists, including militias loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr or the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (the Hakim organization). A National Democratic Institute (NDI) poll taken in April shows that Maliki’s approval rating has jumped to 53 percent from 34 percent in September 2011. Others view Maliki as the new Saddam. This view is held primarily by Iraq’s Kurdish leaders, especially KRG President Masoud Barzani, Sunni Arab politicians whose tribes were favored by Saddam’s regime and sided with U.S. forces in support of the surge of 2006 to 2007, and by Americans and British who worked closely with the Sunni Arabs during the U.S. occupation. In a political style reminiscent of Saddam, Maliki has become increasingly skilled at using nationalist rhetoric when it suits him and sectarian manipulation when he perceives it the more useful tool. He is artful in fashioning political compromises, such as the Irbil Agreement, to co-opt his rivals and in using constitutional arguments to defend his refusal to implement previous political concessions while he moves to isolate, intimidate, and arrest opponents. He has been helped by the split last year in the Iraqiyya movement, and the reluctance of Sunni Arab parliamentary leaders to break with him openly. According to Iraqi sources, prominent Sunni Arab politicians who had been discredited by Maliki — including Salih al-Mutlak, Osama al-Nujayfi and probably Mishan al-Juburi — have apparently reached a modus vivendi with Maliki that permits the first two to remain in their positions and allows Juburi to return from exile in Syria. If there were to be a push for a vote of no confidence in parliament — as Muqtada al-Sadr and others have threatened — some question whether Maliki would permit his opponents to reach Baghdad. Even the Kurds are not fully on board with a vote of no-confidence. President Jalal Talabani in early June at a conference in Dokan that included Kurdish parliamentarians appeared to urge participants not to support a vote of no-confidence in the prime minister. Muqtada al-Sadr, however, is pressing ahead with his demand for a vote.

Maliki has made clear his view that power sharing or the creation of more autonomous provincial regions will not solve Iraq’s current problems. The 2005 Constitution is not suitable to resolve these problems but more important, the state is weak. Maliki argues that in a democratic state the winner has the right to form the government with ministers and officials of his choosing. In a state with a history of free and fair elections, acceptance of the rule of the law, and a system of checks and balances among government institutions, this would apply. But Iraq is not that state, Maliki is not that leader, and Iraqis are too scarred by past decades of oppression and dictatorship to accept Maliki as a "muscular democrat" or to protest his actions openly.

Maliki is not solely responsible for Iraq’s political stagnation. State institutions are profoundly weak due to rampant corruption, interest groups that purchase ministries using money, violence, or wasta (influence), reliance on patronage networks, or playing on blatant sectarian fears. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index ranks Iraq as the 8th most corrupt country in the world.

Would Iraq be better under a national unity government? Probably not. So long as governments reward loyalty with ministry positions and there is no independent civil service or other means of imposing accountability on government and its exercise of power, there can be little hope of change. Maliki praises and targets the parliament and anti-corruption committees and has forced their leaders to resign. At the same time, the central government has only marginally improved people’s lives. Unemployment is high, job security uncertain, and electricity still an unreliable commodity in a country now entering its long summer with temperatures in Baghdad and most of southern Iraq averaging 125 degrees Fahrenheit.

Dodge believes that the purpose of Maliki’s forces should be measured by their size. By this standard and with an internal security force nearly twice the size of the national military, the purpose of Iraq’s security force is to impose order on the population and not provide national security. Maliki has established security forces that are numerous and ready to impose his will on the populace. He has not created or strengthened a state ready and able to provide much needed services like electricity and water for its people. Dodge sees a fractured, angry, alienated state whose ideological underpinning is part nationalism, part sectarianism, part ethnicism. He predicts that violence will increase in this fractured state, perhaps not to the level of another insurgency, but it will be bad. Dodge believes these factors could potentially be a flashpoint for an uprising. I think this is doubtful. Iraqis are weary of the long years of war and sanctions under Saddam followed by more years of violence, deprivation, and political wrangling.

Like many critics of U.S. policy, Dodge blames the United States for much of Iraq’s woes. The United States, he says:

… is becoming a victim of its own inaction. [It] should not treat Iraq like a broken toy, but as a repressive and unstable block on the landscape that merits attention since it was made in the USA. We have a malfunctioning unstable state that we are somewhat responsible for. The U.S. administration needs to look at this critically, it does not appear to be, but it should do this.

Historian Phebe Marr is skeptical of the ability of the United States to step in and fix anything. She believes the answer lies in fixing the culture and not in fixing the constitution. Iraqi scholar Adeed Dawisha agrees. In Dawisha’s view, Maliki seems to consider the system of checks and balances "not as an essential element of democracy, but as an irritant political imposition that he would gladly discard or circumvent." This should come as no surprise, Dawisha notes, since Maliki came of political age in the shadow of Saddam, as a member of a clandestine and hierarchical Islamist party, and in long years of exile in the Islamic Republic of Iran and under the watchful eye of the Assad regime in Syria. So long as personal interests and greed dominate the Iraqi political sphere, the system will be dysfunctional, the government unable to provide services, and elections or a new prime minister unable to overcome obstacles. Marr believes that U.S. programs that deal in education, professional exchanges and business could help move Iraq past sectarianism and change the political culture, although she admits it "will be tough." Others who watch Iraq raise the lack of a strategic framework agreement, which was supposed to set relations between the governments of the United States and Iraq after the withdrawal of U.S. forces. The only visible indicator of relations appears to be the arms sales under consideration, including F-16s, tanks, and other equipment. The new technology will enable the Iraqi security services to quell most disturbances but with no strategic agreement how will the United States hope to influence any bad behavior by the Iraqi government against its people?

Many of the groups encouraged and funded by the United States — including non-governmental organizations active in Iraq and Washington — are losing their funding and at the same time face pressure from the Maliki’s government, sectarian civil society factions and extremist leaders like Muqtada al-Sadr to curtail their activities. In light of the U.S. withdrawal, these groups have been left without a shield and are now targeted as collaborators. They are at risk if they try to continue their efforts, or must try and function from exile in Kurdistan or elsewhere.

Iraq’s political elites are also being influenced by other developments. All Iraqis are watching Syria with great concern. Syria no longer is a safe haven for Iraqi exiles and Syrian refugees are reported seeking protection in tribal areas of northwestern Iraq, which once saw an influx of Syrian-backed terrorists and arms smugglers. Some Sunni Arabs worry that Iran’s position and that of Maliki will be strengthened should Assad survive. Other Iraqis — Sunni and Shiite — worry that should the Assad regime fail, Saudi-backed religious extremist factions (Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi extremists) will be strengthened and threaten Iraq’s tenuous stability. In either scenario, Iraq will be more vulnerable to outside manipulation, either from a Sunni-dominated Syria or as Iran’s new line of defense or strategic depth against its enemies on the west. Either scenario could place Iraq at greater risk of civil war.

Tensions with the Kurds are also having unintended consequences for Arab Iraqis. Despite Masoud Barzani’s stand, Iraq’s Kurdish parties will not support a vote of no confidence because Maliki has given them a great deal. The Iraqi army is strong and coherent enough to stabilize an uprising at least in central Iraq, but it is probably not strong enough to put up a fight with the Kurds in the north. Dodge believes that a decision to move against Barzani would lead to a long and protracted conflict. He is probably correct for the short-term, but in the longer term and with new arms and resources, Baghdad will be stronger and better able to deal with security problems in the disputed territories. Iraq’s Arabs are growing increasingly concerned with the levels of anti-Arab rhetoric coming from the Kurdistan Regional Government and several recently returned leaders give as their reason for return from exile their frustration with Kurdish demands for territory long held by Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen. It would behoove the Kurds to work their relations with Baghdad to protect their advances but Barzani’s rhetoric and intransigence on cooperation with Baghdad during his visits to Washington and Turkey in April have alarmed many in Iraq and abroad. Some analysts note that the KRG "cannot survive as freeloaders for long when $10 billion annually flows from oil sharing revenues from Central Baghdad to their coffers."

For many observers in and outside Iraq, the country’s situation is almost impossible. Outsiders like Dodge and Marr believe the structures created by the United States are still in place in the ministry of defense and elsewhere, but they are irrelevant. Oversight mechanisms are in place but are subverted or overlooked. For Dodge and others, the United States needs to re-ignite a peer-to-peer attempt to save and bolster professional autonomy. The U.S. military still has influence in military affairs because of equipment sales, exchange programs, and training. Iraqis have a different perspective. Others believe that the only outcome will be political chaos or a return to the anarchy of 2006 to 2007 should Maliki continue on his present course. Wiser Iraqis take a longer view. One Iraqi opined that the present uncertain state of affairs will probably continue for the next year or more, perhaps until the 2014 election for a new parliament. He believes fair and free elections are still possible and that Maliki has had to restrain whatever instincts he may have to move relentlessly and ruthlessly against his real and imagined enemies. He admits his disappointment in Maliki’s actions but, like many Iraqis, hopes to avoid a return to the anarchy that prevailed before Maliki assumed power.

One final question remains and it was asked when Saddam was removed. Was he, Saddam, an anomaly or a product of his time and political culture? If he was an anomaly, then the chances of another era of repression under a patriarchal autocrat would be slim. But if he was a product of his political culture and history, then Maliki could represent the next Saddam. Let us hope this is not the case.

Dr. Judith S. Yaphe is a Distinguished Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research at National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. She may be contacted at (202) 685-2224 or The views expressed are her own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola