by Wayne White
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki resorted to a bare-knuckle power play on Aug. 10 in a frantic attempt to forestall his unfolding political defeat. Leaders recognizing the importance of a fresh new government appeared to overwhelm him. With a new premier in the saddle, peeling Sunni Arabs away from the Islamic State could be explored far more effectively. The international community could also have a partner in Baghdad with which to address Iraq’s crisis in a more sweeping fashion.
Over the weekend, 127 Shia parliamentarians lined up behind Deputy Parliament Speaker Haider al-Abadi, a member of Maliki’s own Dawa Party, for him to be the next prime minister. This coalition included nearly 40 parliamentarians from Maliki’s own State of Law election list.
New Iraqi President Fouad Masoum extended Sunday’s scheduled parliament session by one day to finalize the deal. Although Maliki had been on solid ground to get first shot at forming a government (his list winning the most deputies in the elections), there remains some wiggle room in the constitutional definition of what constitutes the most numerous list, coalition, or faction. Nonetheless, nearly half of Maliki’s list subsequently abandoned him.The precise deadline for a presidential decision naming the first candidate to form a government is also blurred by doubts about how the countdown should be conducted (whether national and religious holidays should be counted, for example).
Maliki’s Dangerous Gambit
In a desperate effort to head off an obvious defeat in parliament, during Aug. 10-11 Maliki sent Iraqi elite security forces groomed as loyalists into Baghdad’s streets along with small crowds of supporters. This was the culmination of Maliki’s authoritarian behavior — including covert violence — as prime minister.
Maliki appeared on Iraqi TV twice over 24 hours, first to challenge Masoum’s legal right to postpone the Aug. 10 parliamentary session and later to reject al-Abadi’s nomination.
Even if Maliki had been given the opportunity he sought to muster support for a new government, weeks of precious time would have been wasted since he lacks sufficient parliamentary backing. The election that gave him a small plurality also pre-dated the Islamic State’s offensive, resulting largely from Maliki’s own exclusion and persecution of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs. So, Maliki’s only hope of scraping up enough support to stay in office would have therefore been to resort to hard-edged bullying.
With many enemies and abuses of power, Maliki has good reason — sheer ambition aside — to cling to his job. Absent the horde of government and semi-official goons to watch his back, whether in Iraq or elsewhere, Maliki could be in danger of serious payback if Iraqis with grievances seek revenge.
Ignoring Maliki’s military power play and legal objections, Masoum nominated al-Abadi to form a government “that would protect the Iraqi people” on Aug. 11. Muqtada al-Sadr endorsed al-Abadi’s nomination as the “first sign” Iraq was moving in the direction of safety. Sadr’s Shia Mahdi Army, with tens of thousands of battle-hardened militia street fighters, would be a formidable foe if Maliki presses ahead with his military challenge. The US, France, Turkey, Iran, and the UN quickly lined up behind Masoum and Abadi.
So who is Haider al-Abadi? The British-educated engineer has held senior positions under every Iraqi prime minister (save one) as well as parliamentary positions since the 2003 ousting of Saddam Hussein. Well-respected and known for his economic expertise, Abadi was considered for prime minister in 2006. He is said to be a lot more flexible than Maliki and is not known for excessive involvement in sectarian politics.
The Bottom Line
If Maliki can be removed without an all-out street fight or weeks of delay, it would be the first major break since the Islamic State began its offensive back in June. Opposing Maliki has been the Islamic State’s most effective propaganda weapon in rallying diverse Sunni Arab support; Maliki’s departure alone would be a setback for the extremists. Likewise, until now Maliki has been a bone in the throat of international efforts to fashion a credible strategy to contain and then drive back the militants.
With Maliki gone, the US would be able to support Baghdad far more directly — aid has so far been held back so Washington would not be seen as merely doing Maliki’s sectarian dirty work. Under Maliki, Iraq had practically severed meaningful relations with the US and its allies as 5 years of pleas for ethno-sectarian fairness were ignored.
The most notable change would relate to Iraq itself. Without a new prime minister following the elections, Iraq has been adrift during its greatest moment of post-occupation crisis; its response to the Islamic State’s challenge has so far lacked any real hope of success because of the discredited leadership in Baghdad. Stifling more creative policies, Maliki retained the Defense, National Security, Interior and Intelligence ministry portfolios for himself.
Symbolic of Maliki’s flawed, self-centered priorities was his deployment of the elite Iraqi Special Forces with their armored Humvees on the streets of Baghdad — just the sort of force so desperately needed on various battlefronts. Similarly absurd after his resort to military force was Maliki’s statement today calling upon the army, security forces and police to stay out of politics and keep their focus on defending the country!