Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is caught between a raging militant insurgency and fast-evaporating credibility among allies at home and abroad. His critics say he’s paying for his own failures.
When demonstrations swept the Middle East from 2011 and toppled autocrats, Maliki shrugged off Iraq’s own burgeoning protest movement. The Shiite-dominated army later raided camps where Sunnis were protesting abuses by the security forces and demanding a greater role in government. Maliki accused them of harboring al-Qaeda militants.
Many of the Shiite politicians in Baghdad who hoisted Maliki into office are now in revolt and refusing to back him for a third term. The U.S. is pressing for an administration that represents all Iraqis, while Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, yesterday called for a new, effective government “that can avoid previous mistakes.”
“We’re moving backwards and security has deteriorated each year since 2010,” said Ameer al-Kinan, spokesman of the Ahrar party, a member of the Sadrist Movement led by cleric Moqtada al-Sadr that had backed the prime minister. “Only foolish people would consider Maliki in light of these events.”
The crisis facing Maliki threatens to reignite civil war in Iraq, OPEC’s second-biggest oil producer, as insurgents of the Islamic State in the Iraq and Levant continue their offensive. The U.S. is sending military advisers and reconnaissance planes to help repel ISIL, while rival regional powers Iran and Saudi Arabia spar over who’s to blame for the violence.
Even before ISIL took Mosul this month and advanced toward Baghdad, Shiite politicians were positioning themselves to replace Maliki, said Ramzy Mardini, a Jordan-based non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council research group.
Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a former vice president, Ibrahim Jaafari who leads the National Alliance, which groups the main Shiite parties, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, and deputy premier Hussain al-Shahristani have all been touted in Iraqi media.
Even Ahmad Chalabi, accused of providing discredited information to the U.S. before the 2003 invasion, “is trying to plot his reemergence,” said Mardini.
If leading political figures in Baghdad are serious about removing Maliki, they’ll need to convince Iran, the dominant Shiite force in the region that has underwritten recent Iraqi governments, and which has vowed to help defeat ISIL.
“If the Shiite parties remain adamant on their opposition toward Maliki, then it’s possible Iran would go to the second phase of their strategy: coming up with a consensus candidate,” Mardini said.
Calls to five lawmakers in Maliki’s group and his spokesman weren’t answered.
Maliki has survived crises before. In 2008, he managed to rein in Shiite militias led by al-Sadr that were fighting for control of the oil-rich southern city of Basra, after which his popularity peaked.
While President Barack Obama has promised more support for Iraq in its fight against ISIL, also known as ISIS, including the deployment of as many as 300 special operations personnel announced June 19, he’s also made clear the onus is on Iraq’s leaders to resolve the crisis. Obama also declined to say whether he continues to have confidence in Maliki.
Over the last three years, Maliki has failed to deliver the better life Iraqis sought after Saddam Hussein’s ouster in 2003 and the violence that followed. Sectarian attacks in 2013, many in Shiite areas, were the worst in five years, with 7,818 people killed nationwide, according to the United Nations.
He’s marginalized minority Sunnis, said Harith Hasan, Washington-based author of “Imagining the Nation: Nationalism, Sectarianism and Socio-Political Conflict in Iraq.”
“Maliki’s policy towards the Sunni elite and Sunni community was one of divide and rule,” Hasan said in an e-mailed reply to questions. “He tried to weaken strong Sunni leaders, deprive the Sunni population of legitimate and reliable leadership and empower those who are loyal.”
Resentment at such policies won ISIL the support of some tribesmen and former members of Saddam’s banned Baath party as it began its offensive, according to Sheikh Abdel-Qader al-Nayel, a tribal leader in the predominantly Sunni city of Ramadi.
Under an informal agreement reached in the wake of Iraq’s first post-Saddam democratic election in 2005, the prime minister is from the Shiite community that accounts for about 60 percent of the population, the president a Kurd and the speaker of parliament a Sunni.
Maliki’s bloc won 92 of the 328 seats contested in inconclusive parliamentary elections in April. Kurds gained 62, while Sunnis won at least 33. A secular grouping headed by Allawi took 21 seats. Acting President Khodair al-Khozaei has a month to summon parliament and forge a government.
The Sadrists aren’t alone among the Shiite ranks in their opposition to Maliki. The majority within the National Alliance are “firm” in opposing him, al-Kinan said. Maliki’s State of Law bloc is a lone voice in publicly insisting on his candidacy.
In the past, Maliki has cut whatever deals were necessary to remain in power, something that has now landed him with a problem: a reputation for abandoning allies once he’s got what he wanted has left him isolated, Mardini said.
Shiite parties are starting to acknowledge Sunni concerns. Baleegh Abu Gelal, spokesman for the Shiite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq Coalition, said there are plenty of Sunnis who oppose violence, and the way to achieve stability is “by responding to their legal and constitutional demands.”
Al-Kinan of the Ahrar party called for an inclusive government to rule for a year or two until elections.
Some external pressure may be needed to achieve that, said Sunni lawmaker Wihda al-Jumaili.
“America should intervene and advise the political leaders to form a national salvation government and, at least, be fair to the Sunnis,” she said.