Iraq: Maliki on the Way Out?

by Wayne White

After a drought of news on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s bid to stay in power, a July 22 Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article claimed he has run into real trouble. Now, not only Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and Kurds, but many Shia leaders, plus the Iranians reportedly realize Maliki’s re-election could be disastrous, possibly undercutting efforts to oust the Islamic State (IS) from its recent gains. Yet Maliki remains grimly determined to press ahead with his candidacy.

Iraqi officials with access told the WSJ that senior Shia politicians present at meetings with Iranian officials in Baghdad and the Shia holy city of Najaf said Maliki “had lost the confidence of all but his most inner circle.” Likewise, these officials said participating Iranian officials indicated that Tehran also had “really started to lean away from Maliki as a candidate.”

Iran’s position seemed confirmed by a July 23 Associated Press (AP) July report that none other than Iranian General Ghasem al-Soleimani recently told Maliki to abandon his effort to remain prime minister. Soleimani has been intensely involved in organizing Iraqi resistance to IS around the city of Samarra north of Baghdad that houses an important Shia mosque/shrine. Yet, Maliki reportedly rebuffed Soleimani.

Worse still for Maliki, three Iraqi officials associated with these discussions said Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the source of emulation for most Iraqi Shia, wrote of his opposition to Maliki’s quest for a 3rd term as prime minister in a letter to the Iraqi leader last week. Sistani’s wish that Maliki drop out of the prime ministerial race (in this case relayed by an intermediary even earlier) likewise appeared to be confirmed by the AP via two Iraqi officials.

A Defiant Maliki

Quite apart from his apparent reaction to Soleimani, Maliki seemed unshaken in remarks released last Friday, asserting once again that since his State of Law (SL) bloc won the most seats in April’s parliamentary elections, he should get first crack at forming a government.

The process of government formation can begin now that Iraq’s largely ceremonial Iraqi president (traditionally a Kurd) — in this case Fouad Massoum — was elected on July 24. Massoum must formally identify the individual to be accorded the first shot at cobbling together a new government coalition.

Maliki’s insistence on being named in that respect was boosted on July 23. Iraq’s Federal Supreme Court ruled that his State of Law bloc had the legal right to go first.

One motivation driving Maliki may be fear. After years of serious, often extralegal abuses against his sectarian and political enemies and rampant official corruption, another government could delve into Maliki’s ugly record and place him in a lot more jeopardy than simply losing his job as prime minister.


The frontlines between IS, allied factions, and the Iraqi government forces have moved very little. Fighting still flares outside Samarra, in the vicinity of Tikrit, south of Kurdish-held areas, and even in portions of Sunni Arab al-Anbar Governorate in western Iraq where isolated government garrisons have held on (reinforced and resupplied via helicopter and ground convoys snaking around IS-held areas).

Government attempts to retake locales like the city of Tikrit on the road to Samarra and the encircled refinery at Baiji have failed. On July 24 militants attacked a government-held base about 12 miles north of Baghdad and a convoy evacuating prisoners from the base. The affair turned into a bloodbath with 52 prisoners and 8 Iraqi soldiers dead amidst countercharges that either the militants or the soldiers fired into the prisoners.

Meanwhile, bombings have occurred regularly in Baghdad, now claimed by IS. As far back as 2011, however, such bombings against Shia or government targets had already become commonplace.

IS Abuses and Vulnerabilities

Reports have soared over the past week of IS human rights abuses, atrocities, and acts of historic religious destruction, particularly in and around Mosul. IS fighters have expelled Christian monks from a historic monastery in Mosul, prohibiting them from taking ancient texts. Christians in general also have been forced to flee into nearby Iraqi Kurdistan after being told they must convert or leave, taking little or nothing with them.

The conservative Sunni Qatar-based International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS) declared the Christians “native sons of Iraq” and that the expulsions “violate Islamic laws.” Islamic tradition holds that Christians enjoy protection and can be required to pay a tax (Jizya); Christians do not have to pay the Zakat tax levied on Muslims. IUMS and senior clerics elsewhere in the region have likewise denounced IS’s pretentious announcement of a Caliphate.

IS has also turned on local Muslim communities. On July 24, it blew up the revered shrine/mosque of the Prophet Jonah (Yunis in Arabic) in Mosul. In some areas IS cadres have plundered mosques, and it has been reported that some localities went over to IS only after mayors, other prominent citizens, and their families were held hostage pending submission.

The UN issued a report on June 20 accusing Islamic State militants of wanton executions of clerics, political leaders, educators, health workers, rape, and the recruitment of child soldiers. Al-Qaeda in Iraq wore out its welcome as an ally against the US occupation 8-10 years ago, spawning the Sunni Arab “Awakening,” by doing far less. So these abuses and atrocities will make IS a lot more vulnerable. The defection of a number of its non-IS Sunni Arab allies would be in play if Baghdad were able to proffer a viable — and credible — alternative that addresses these groups’ longstanding grievances.

Maliki Facing Long Odds

If Maliki wins his battle to stay in office, Baghdad’s ability to offer that alternative would be greatly diminished. Non-Jihadist Sunni Arab elements like tribes, former military personnel, and alienated inhabitants of IS-occupied communities could see little choice but to stick with IS regardless — at least for a while.

After all, the prospect of “liberation” by a motley collection of Iraqi troops and undisciplined, notoriously brutal Shia militias would be particularly frightening with a prime minister known for his anti-Sunni Arab attitudes still at the helm.

Despite Maliki’s determination, he will have a hard time hanging on with the Kurds, Sunni Arabs in parliament, Sistani, and the Iranians now wanting him out. This morning, Sistani, in a statement at Friday prayers almost certainly meant for Maliki, called upon leaders to “bear their national responsibilities” requiring “sacrifice and self-denial and not to cling to positions or posts.” So Maliki probably will be given his chance to form a government, but even many Shia in his own electoral bloc likely won’t support him.

Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.



  1. As long as there is no replacement accepted by all parties, Maliki will stay. Until now, we don’t see any Shia personality that could take his place.

  2. All things considered, when the WSJ writes anything, (almost anything), it should be taken with a grain of salt. Of courase, if you drink its koolaid, then so be it.

  3. Maliki should be on his way out. He has been a major disappointment. After the disaster that was the combination of the Baathist movement, Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror and the three wars he was directly and indirectly responsible for, putting the Iraq Humpty Dumpty back together was a monumental task. It was the job of a Mendela type, someone with the proper perspective and background, someone with incredible skills at bringing together various factions. That it became a political game, subject to some degree to the whims of the US foreign policy and the regional players such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, and it ended up in the hands of Maliki, that’s an absolute shame, because Maliki quite possibly made a bad situation worse. Today, Iraq is disintegrating. It’ll take a miracle if we ever see Iraq back together but I’m not optimistic.

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