Goodbye Maliki, Hello Iraq

Image: Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki

Initially when I met Nouri al-Maliki I was disappointed. It was in Baghdad in 2004 some months after Saddam Hussein was toppled by invading US troops, and I was part of a small team of scholars led by Mary Kaldor from the London School of Economics who were trying to understand how broken societies could heal in times of conflict. My goal was to talk with Sunni and Shi’a political leaders. I had an interesting interview with Sunni leaders from al Anbar province who were engaged in the resistance against the US occupation, but the main figures in the dominate Shi’a party were too busy. So instead they referred me to the Dawa party, the second largest Shi’a political group. The top official in this party was also unavailable, so I had to settle with a lesser character, essentially the office manager of the Baghdad headquarters of the party. That was Nouri al Maliki.
When I arrived at the makeshift Dawa party headquarters in what had been the old ticket office of an abandoned airfield, al Maliki was waiting to meet with me—no staff, no receptionist, just al Maliki. He was wearing a brown suit with a white shirt and no tie, and he absent-mindedly fingered his wooden prayer beads as he waited for my questions. He was a less than imposing figure.
Going back over the transcripts, I find there was nothing remarkable about the interview. He was careful and cautious in his comments. If there was a dominant theme it was one of inclusiveness—an ironic sentiment, considering how narrowly sectarian he became when he ascended to a position in power. But in 2004, when he was a nobody talking with an American professor, al Maliki was all about pluralism. He thought the new government of Iraq should reach out to all quarters of society, and he regarded his own party as exemplary in this regard. Yes, it was largely Shi’a, as was most of Iraq. But the party included Sunnis and Christians, al Maliki claimed. Otherwise, the interview was quite formulaic.
This bland demeanor largely explains how he made it—how al Maliki was plucked from relative obscurity to the position of Prime Minister, a post that he held for eight years with an increasingly iron hand. Initially he was favored precisely because he was perceived as being not threatening. In a stand-off among contending political interests, the ideal leader seemed to be a second-rate functionary from a second-rate party with a personality that seemed to suggest a lack of political ambition.
This observation turned out to be dead wrong. Once he got into power al Maliki seemed to enjoy it. Rather than embrace all factions of the country, he focused on his base, the Shi’a professional class. Like Saddam Hussein before him, al Maliki showered political favors on his loyal followers, and claimed he was protecting their interests. “Their” in this case, referred to his Shi’a comrades. The Sunnis were left out in the cold. They feared they would be forever second class citizens in the new Iraq.
This was the fear that propelled Sunni leadership into supporting the insurgency against the US occupation. When I was in Iraq in 2004, the leaders told me that the US intended to support the Shi’a in the south and the Kurds in the north to the exclusion of the Sunnis in the west. The de-Baathification process supported by the Americans was an indication of this, since most of the functionaries in Saddam Hussein’s Baath party came from his own Sunni community. For this reason many young Sunnis joined forces with the extremists, the al Qaeda of Iraq led at that time by Abu Musab al Zarqawi. They were tacitly supported by their elders, who saw no other option for asserting Sunni interests in the country.
Perhaps the lowest moment came in 2004 when a protest in Fallujah against the killing of the Palestinian Hamas leader, Sheik Yassin, led to a confrontation with American troops posted nearby the city. When a convoy of American mercenary soldiers associated with the Blackwater security agency drove through town, a gang of young Sunni men attacked it, setting the cars on fire and brutally killing the occupants. The picture that stunned the world was as scene of charred American bodies hanging from the girders of a bridge over the Euphrates River.
In response, Pentagon officials ordered US troops to march on Fallujah, and in two successive skirmishes during that year the city was virtually destroyed. Many of the citizens left. The traditional social structure of the city was severed, and whatever control the elders had over the fiery youth of the city was weakened. Many of the young men fanned out over Iraq, joining forces with Zarqarwi’s al Qaeda extremists, clashing with both the American occupying troops and the Shi’a paramilitary groups, such as the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr.
Then a remarkable thing happened. The Americans stopped battling with the Sunni leadership in al Anbar province and provided them money and arms to fight against the al Qaeda extremists. They promised the Sunnis a greater role in Iraq’s future and freedom from extremists who were annoying the elders with their aggressive, Islamist posturing. This was the Awakening movement in 2007 that was part of the so-called “surge” engineered by General David Petraeus. It did involve a surge of US troups, but they were mostly deployed to the city of Baghdad where they helped to police the neighborhoods and contain the sectarian fighting. Out in the western hinterlands of al Anbar province it was an anti-surge, a decrease in US presence and a support for local leadership.
It was a brilliant strategy and worked well as long as the Americans were in the country. When the US troops left in 2011, it was up to the Iraq government to insure that the Sunni interests were supported and its leadership was respected. This task fell on the Prime Minister, Nouri al Maliki, who proved himself to be woefully short of both tasks. Maliki was busy shoring up his own power by catering to his Shi’a base and, like Saddam Hussein before him, handing out government appointments as rewards for personal loyalty.
So in a tragic way, the situation in 2014 has reverted to that of 2004 in a post-Fallujah state of hostility between the Sunni population in the West and the Baghdad government exclusively concerned with the interests of the Shi’a in the South. Once again the Sunnis, left out of the new Iraq, have joined forces with the extremists who promise to free them from the control of Baghdad. In 2014 the extremists are the jihadi forces associated with ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. It is a movement that has taken over the Syrian resistance movement, much to the chagrin of those Syrian rebels who are simply anti-Assad and not ideologically extreme. In fact, the ISIS forces are so extreme in their anti-Shi’a ideology and their savage methods—including public beheadings—that the old al Qaeda leadership has denounced them. Yet with the complicity of the Sunni community in western Iraq they have seized vast stretches of the country, including the city of Mosul, second largest in the country.
Iraq seems to be on the verge of splitting up. The Kurds in the north are anxiously protecting their turf, and have expressed an eagerness to be autonomous. ISIS has proclaimed itself the Islamic State, and wants to create a new country out of western Iraq and eastern Syria. This would leave The Shi’a with the city of Basra and the rest of Iraq, presumably also with the capital city of Baghdad. The only thing that might keep Iraq from falling apart would be a reversal of Maliki’s pro-Shi’a style of leadership and encouragement for a new Awakening movement that would give Sunni leaders a role in the government. This might undercut their support for ISIS, and even—as during the earlier period of the Surge—encourage them them to turn against their extremist comrades. But the only thing that has kept this kind of political pluralism from happening is al Maliki.
This explains why he has become such a reviled figure in Iraqi politics. US President Barack Obama made it clear that American support for Iraq was contingent on a change of leadership that would make the government more open. Even Iran, the Shi’a protector, has indicated that it is time for Maliki to leave. The major Shi’a cleric in Iraq, al Sistani, has withdrawn his support. Al-Maliki’s own Dawa party was divided in its support for him.
This is where Haider al-Abadi has entered the picture as the new Prime Minister designate. The Iraq President, Fuad Masum, a Kurd, snubbed al Maliki and asked another member of his Dawa party, al-Abadi, to form a government instead. After several days of threatening legal action and possible force to keep in power, al Maliki acceded to the inevitable and al-Abadi is slated to be Prime Minister at the beginning of September.
Now that al Maliki is on his way out, does Iraq have a chance of surviving? The answer to this question depends in part on Abadi, whether he is willing to be sufficiently open to Sunni representation to make them interested in participating in a united Iraq. If so, they will turn away from ISIS as easily as they turned against Zarqawi’s al Qaeda forces seven years ago. As terrifying as they are, the hard core ISIS fighters number only in the thousands and without local Sunni support their tenuous political hold will fall like a house of cards. With al Maliki out, therefore, Iraq may have a future after all.