Iraq is only months away from its quadrennial national election for its Council of Representatives, scheduled for April 30. As in most countries with relatively open elections, candidates and factions should be vying for supporters, negotiating coalitions and setting up party offices to campaign in the towns, cities and provinces of Iraq. This is indeed happening, at least in most of Iraq, where prominent politicians are declaring their candidacy and urging other parties and factions to join their list or coalition. Iraq’s new election law, passed after a prolonged political battle last year, seems to favor individual candidates and smaller coalitions over predetermined lists and large coalitions with little connection to individual voters. Even more, Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki may have managed to shout down critics opposed to his seeking a third term.
But one issue being fought out on the streets of Ramadi, Fallujah and even Baghdad could determine the results of the election and Maliki’s political fate. In 2010, the prime minister’s State of Law Coalition was able to win election based on two developments. First, Maliki was able to restore security to areas of Baghdad and Basra where rival Shi’a militias were battling for control of lucrative smuggling routes and oil revenues. His willingness to take on these militias, especially those of the Sadr Movement, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the Fadhila Party, brought him a brief upsurge of support among Sunnis and Kurds as well as Shi’ites. Second, he was able to out-maneuver his rival, Iyad Allawi’s Iraqiya List, which had won two more seats than the State of Law Coalition in the 2010 parliamentary elections, by getting the Supreme Court to agree with his view that a coalition formed after an election could choose the new prime minister and form the government. This was in direct contravention of the Constitution, which said that after the election the winning party or coalition had that right, which would probably have made Allawi prime minister.
Maliki now faces his most serious, and possibly final, election battle. Should he fail to end the violence that plagues Anbar, Nineveh and Mosul, then it is hard to see him winning the election or retaining support from what is now a dysfunctional Shi’a coalition. Failure in Anbar would likely cost him the internal as well as foreign (meaning Iranian) support that has helped him maintain control of Iraqi politics. However, should Maliki manage to resolve the conflicts between the Sunni Arabs and the government and eliminate the threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), then he could win. It is a desperate game. The cost of failure will be high, but so will the price of success.
Preparing for war and election
In the 2010 parliamentary elections in Iraq, Maliki and his coalition emerged as the head of government over rival Allawi and the Iraqiya 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 the independent checks and balances established after the 2003 defeat of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Most see Maliki’s actions as intended to consolidate his personal power while containing his weaker and fractious opponents, be they secular or sectarian. This being post-Saddam Iraq, Maliki’s moves carry an uncanny resemblance to the manner in which Saddam gained power.
The 2005 constitution, written primarily by Shi’a Arabs and Kurds, designed a central government with few powers and weak authority, assigning greater authority to provincial governments. Embedded in it is the assumption that power is shared according to Iraq’s primary sectarian and ethnic divisions of Sunni Arabs, Shi’a Arabs, and Kurds, with the goal of preventing a return to dictatorial autocratic power by a sole leader and strictly limiting the powers of the central government. The federal government was vested with power to defend the state, protect its people and distribute revenue, but authority for decision-making on the control of resources, distribution of wealth, and the provision of local security was to lie with the provincial governments, including the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which controlled local politics and security services. The federal government was also given ambiguous powers over hydrocarbon development and export. Provinces could veto national laws and decide to form regional governments similar to the KRG 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, more auspicious moment.
Maliki came to power as prime minister in 2006, having survived more than twenty years of exile in Tehran and Damascus as a functionary in the banned Islamic Da’wa Party, and as a discreet and seemingly nonthreatening presence in the short-lived government of Ibrahim Al-Jaafari. Despite this image, it was Maliki who engineered Jaafari’s removal. Upon becoming prime minister, his first moves were popular ones. A poll taken by the National Democratic Institute released in June 2012 found that 53 percent of those interviewed (including Sunni Arabs and Kurds) supported his moves against the Shi’a militias. Maliki then moved to bring oil contracts and the distribution of oil revenues under federal control. In 2010, following the election debacle which saw Allawi’s Iraqiya Coalition win the election but lose the right to form the new government, Maliki met with prominent Sunni Arab and Kurdish leaders, including Allawi, Kurdish leaders Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, and parliamentarians Osama Al-Nujaifi and Saleh Al-Mutlaq. He agreed to share power with Iraq’s Sunni and Shi’a Arabs and Kurds and appoint a Sunni Arab and a Shi’a Arab to head the Defense and Interior Ministries. He also promised to share power with Allawi by making him head of a National Security Council that would have the power to approve all major legislation once the prime minister had signed it. The decision was a tactic to consolidate power, but was also forced on Maliki by his Kurdish allies and pressure from US officials.
Despite that pressure on him, Maliki had other ideas. He began to target the military, the courts and the ministries to bring them under executive control. He retained the title and role of Defense and Interior Minister for himself, moved special security units out of the Defense Ministry, streamlined the military hierarchy and took control of all high-ranking appointments, thereby circumventing the military chain of command and virtually coup-proofing the military. He consolidated the police and army into one office under one general in order to control all security functions, and tightened his control over the intelligence and security services. Shi’a security forces masquerading as militias maintained secret prisons, and conducted kidnappings and targeted killings with apparent impunity.
Maliki made similar moves to bring the institutions of government under his direct control. Beginning in 2010, he brought the supreme federal court, the central bank, and several independent agencies created by the Americans to oversee elections, protect human rights and fight corruption under his direct control. He saw to it that only the Cabinet, and not the parliament, could propose legislation and ended parliament’s right to question ministers. In December 2011, on the day US forces officially withdrew from Iraq, Maliki ordered the arrest of several prominent Iraqi Sunni Arab politicians, including Deputy Vice-President Tareq Al-Hashemi, on charges of coup plotting, and threatened to arrest Mutlaq and Nujaifi.
Perhaps his most serious mistake, however, was made in 2007, after US forces and Iraqi Sunni Arab tribal militias defeated Al-Qaeda efforts to take control of areas in northwest Iraq. Maliki refused to honor pledges to provide the unemployed and dispirited Sahwa militiamen, many of whom were former military and security officers, with official positions and government salaries. Instead, they were ignored, and in many cases either forced to flee the country or killed.
Maliki is seen by some Iraqis—mostly Shi’ites, and perhaps some Sunni Arabs—as a brave nationalist willing to move against sectarian extremists. Others—such as Sunni Arab politicians whose tribes sided with US forces in the 2006–2007 surge, and occasionally the Kurdish parties—view him as a new Saddam in the making. Like Saddam, Maliki has become increasingly skilled at using nationalist rhetoric when it suits him and sectarian manipulation when he perceives it to be more useful. He is artful in fashioning political compromises, such as the Erbil Agreement, to co-opt his rivals, as well as 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 Iraqiya List and the reluctance of Sunni Arab parliamentary leaders to break with him openly.
Maliki has made clear his view that power-sharing or the creation of more autonomous provincial regions will not solve Iraq’s current problems. It is a view shared by many Iraqis. He 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.
Will this be Maliki’s last battle?
The fighting in Ramadi and Fallujah has still not ended. It has spread to suburbs of Baghdad, and the leader of ISIS reportedly has called for attacks on Shi’a in Baghdad and southern Iraq. The short-term goal of ISIS appears to be to force the government’s collapse and consolidate control of territory that could become the basis of the new emirate of Mesopotamia. Its numbers appear to be small, but it fighters are well armed and effective. Despite Maliki’s claims that the fighters are recruited and funded by foreign governments, Iraq’s Sunnis describe them mostly as Iraqis who had been marginalized and terrorized by the Shi’ite-led government. In Anbar, Sunni tribal leaders are cooperating with the Iraqi army to fight the Sunni extremists, but most have probably not been won over to Maliki’s side completely. In Fallujah, a number of tribal leaders have sided with Al-Qaeda and seem implacably opposed to Maliki, his government and the Iraqi army.
Maliki has changed his strategy from carrying out mass arrests of real and suspected terrorists to an effort to replicate the success of the 2006–2007 surge by American and Iraqi forces. He has sought to speed up the delivery of weapons from the US, as well as intelligence and counterterrorist training. He is also repeating a tactic used both by the British under the mandate and by Saddam: paying and arming tribal militias to fight for him. According to a New York Times report from mid-January, the prime minister promised the tribesmen permanent jobs, pensions and death benefits, and hinted at an amnesty for those who had opposed the government. This probably would not include former Ba’athists, something demanded by some Sunni politicians but strongly opposed by Kurdish and Shi’a factions.
Mistrust remains high between Maliki and the Sunni Arabs of Anbar province. ISIS is taking advantage of the government’s weakness, Sunni fears of more marginalization and state repression, and the chaos of the Syrian civil war to attack Iraq’s Shi’a and government forces. The Sunnis, in turn, do not appear to want a separate state. What they do want is leverage to use with Maliki or whoever succeeds him as prime minister. By the end of January, Maliki’s Sunni Arab political rivals—Mutlaq, Nujaifi, perennial candidate Allawi, and Kurdistan Region President Barzani—will all have visited Washington to seek US recognition of their political ambitions and assure Congress of the sincerity of their anti-extremist democratic values. At the same time, they and their Shi’a counterparts are organizing political coalitions meant to take advantage of the new electoral law and defeat Maliki in April.
Maliki is not solely responsible for Iraq’s political stagnation. State institutions are profoundly weak due to rampant corruption, interest groups demanding posts and using money, violence or wasta (influence), over-reliance on patronage networks, and politicians and clerics playing on blatant sectarian fears. Maliki’s government has only marginally improved people’s lives. Unemployment is high, job security uncertain and electricity still an unreliable commodity in a country where summer temperatures in Baghdad and southern Iraq reach 50 degrees Celsius. Should he be able to rout the ISIS militants—and routing means defeating and killing them—before the April election, his State of Law Coalition could win enough seats to re-elect him prime minister. Should his efforts falter, however, should the Shi’a factions fail to unite behind him, and should Iran decide to back a different candidate, then Maliki is unlikely to win a third term. More importantly, the threat of wider sectarian war fed by Sunni extremists using terror to achieve their ends and Shi’a militias responding in kind will grow.