Iraq’s House of Cards
With the country collapsing around him, Nouri al-Maliki's strongman image is a sham. And that's exactly why he's so dangerous.
There is something truly paradoxical about Iraq’s April 30 parliamentary elections. Although there is near unanimity among observers that the past four years have been disastrous for the country, many are still willing to defend Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s tenure — even going so far as to suggest that there is no one else who is capable of governing the country.
However, the sad reality is that — given all the developments of his eight years in office — very few Iraqis are less suitable to be prime minister today than Maliki. Indeed, Maliki’s third term would likely be even more disastrous than his second, leading to a deterioration in security and causing the country to relapse into a new authoritarian era.
Maliki’s defenders usually argue that the prime minister was largely responsible for the improvement in security that took place in 2008, that he is a shrewd political operator who has outmaneuvered all his opponents, and also that he has made himself indispensable to the state’s survival. That analysis seemed ludicrously generous as early as 2010, when it was first made, but it now borders somewhere between the comical and the suicidal.
It is true that Maliki has outmaneuvered his opponents — but he did so at the expense of Iraq’s institutions. The prime minister merely seized control over the security forces and threatened all his opponents into submission. He has monopolized all decision-making at the Defense and Interior ministries and has taken to providing direct instructions to individual units — often with a view to intimidating enemies or suppressing perceived threats, thereby completely undermining the concept of a professional chain of command. Whenever his opponents demanded that he change his ways, share power, or respect the rule of law, he would simply refuse — safe in the knowledge that his enemies had no leverage to speak of.
Maliki has always been very good at using the security sector to bolster his political power, but has been an utter failure in restoring actual security to Iraq. Although he was quick to take credit for the improvement in security that took place in 2007 and 2008, U.S. military officials who were responsible for overseeing the “surge” have since written detailed memoirs in which Maliki is hardly ever mentioned — and when he does come up, Maliki is almost never portrayed in a positive light. Even his decision to confront Shiite militias in the city of Basra and the Baghdad suburb of Sadr City — often cited as evidence of his nonsectarian credentials and his daring on the battlefield — was a disaster in its early stages, precisely because Maliki was solely in charge. It was only after U.S. forces intervened that the battle was won.
Maliki and his inner circle have also exacerbated security risks through a series of elementary mistakes, including subjecting thousands of innocent young men to unjustified detention and allowing corruption to get so out of hand that it has now seriously impacted the capacity of the security sector. Military units and police throughout the country now either stand aside or actively participate as local mafias force businesses to pay protection money. Security forces in the capital are still forced to use fake bomb detectors simply so that the government (which was responsible for buying the devices) can save face. The result is that the number of security-related deaths has roughly tripled over the past year, as car bombs continue to rip through army units and civilian areas with ruthless efficiency. Meanwhile, armed confrontations between gunmen and government forces have become more frequent.
Security has deteriorated so terribly that Iraq is now once again at risk of splitting apart. Many areas of the country are now out of the government’s control: Large swaths of the western province of Anbar are in open rebellion; security forces have essentially given up trying to control parts of the northern province of Nineveh, which has become a major financial hub for terrorist organizations; and the eastern province of Diyala has witnessed another round of brutal bloodletting as militias and government forces shell civilian areas. The state’s army and police have revealed themselves to be little more than a paper tiger. They are very willing to arrest and torture the innocent and defenseless, but are essentially powerless to control the actions of powerful militias that are now running riot throughout the country. With security forces incapable of facing the threat, Shiite militias have actually begun providing instructions to the military — sometimes even replacing them in battle altogether. These developments have exposed Maliki’s strongman image as the house of cards it always was.
The prime minister’s supporters regularly refer admiringly to his capacity for survival, but it is precisely Maliki’s stubborn insistence that he should remain in control of government that has hindered the provision of services. Hospitals are in such a poor state that Iraqi doctors would never imagine turning to one of their colleagues for treatment; they travel to any number of capitals in the region for even minor ailments. Electricity production has improved only slightly, to the extent that summers and winters are still invariably punctuated by daily power cuts, some of which can last for days. Rather than trying to resolve these problems, Maliki has allowed a grotesque form of nepotism to gnaw away at the state’s bureaucracy, marginalizing the few competent officials who survived Baath Party rule and Iraq’s wars.
These failures also have served to prevent alternatives to the status quo from emerging. Maliki’s greatest success may have been creating the impression that he is indispensable — that the state will collapse if the man in charge is removed. The truth is that what makes Maliki and his clique indispensable is their willingness to burn the whole house down to protect their positions.
In fact, many competent politicians are far better placed than Maliki and his inner circle to guide the country to a better place. Iraq does not lack competent administrators or politicians — it merely lacks the democratic traditions that would allow them to play a greater role in revitalizing its moribund government. Several names come immediately to mind: Mohammed Allawi, a former communications minister who resigned in protest when Maliki kept appointing incompetent party loyalists to his ministry; Ali Allawi, a former defense and finance minister who left government in 2006 in disgust at the corruption; Adel Abdul Mahdi, a respected politician who could have sufficient backing to form a government; and Ali Dwai, a governor of a southern province who is renowned for his effectiveness in very difficult circumstances.
While Maliki may want observers to fear that his departure would cause a security deterioration, the truth is that life in Iraq is already becoming more desperate by the day — in large part because of the toxic role that Maliki has been playing. Sectarian relations have worsened considerably, and the general population is terrified of a renewed conflict. A change at the country’s helm is needed precisely in order to restore the possibility of an improvement in the country’s direction; with Maliki, that possibility does not exist. For Iraqis to place their trust in the possibility that he might change his style of governance after eight years in power would be borderline suicidal.
There is in fact a serious possibility that Maliki will not obtain sufficient popular support to retain his position. His electoral popularity peaked at around 24 percent of the vote in 2010, when many Iraqis still believed in his nonsectarian and strongman credentials. However, Iraq’s complex and dysfunctional parliamentary system has allowed him to negotiate his survival. This election season, Maliki’s fortunes will necessarily decline from the previous poll — the only questions are by how much and how his electoral rivals will react. After the votes are counted, Iraq’s future will depend on its leaders’ ability to form a post-election alliance without the country’s most corrosive elements at its helm.