By David Clark
Since the March 7, 2011 elections in which Alawi won the majority vote, with 91 seats to Maliki’s 89, the battle between Alawi and Maliki started in earnest. A long 11 months followed;the political ‘horse-trading’ seemed endless with Iraq even beating Belgium to the record for the longest duration to form a government. There were ‘king makers’ on two sides; the Kurdish Alliance taking the opportunity to corner the Prime Minister designate to bend to their demands over oil and gas concessions and the Kirkuk issue; and on the other side Muqtada Al-Sadr taking the lead to cleanse himself of the label of ‘Firebrand Shi’a Cleric’ gained during the Najaf uprising in 2004, to follow the political trail. Although al-Sadr is still anti-US and in particular its presence in Iraq, his actions have made significant gains for the Sadrist Movement, certainly disproportionate to their number of followers. The final result though, was a ‘unity’ government, perhaps in name only.
According to local reporting, the Basra people are getting weary of the current national ‘status quo’; and feel the current state of the country under Maliki is blighted with corruption, poor security forces and lack of services (water, power, sewerage and hospitals). There are those that feel that the situation was better before 2003 under Saddam Hussein and believe that his policy of keeping Iran and Kuwait at arm’s length was good for Iraq and its security. There are those who describe Prime Minister Maliki as a dictator already; however, a dictator with an inability to reform or improve the situation in the country, with already two chances to do so.
Iyad Alawi and his Iraqiyah bloc have called for early elections and may also move for a vote of no confidence in Maliki’s government. An early election would certainly not suit Maliki as he owes both of his ‘king makers’, with his debts in many respects remaining unpaid. Maliki accepted many of the Kurd demands in return for the support of their popular bloc; however, there has been little or no return from his administration, the situation remaining as tense as it was two years ago. As for the Sadrists, Muqtada al-Sadr has called for a full cessation of violence against US forces in Iraq, which so far appears to be holding. This continued cease-fire relies heavily on the anticipated US withdrawal at the end of 2011. Therefore, to keep the Sadrist support Maliki must push for the total withdrawal of US troops, even if it troubles him to do so; or risk the likes of the Jaish al-Mahdi launching a renewed offensive, which could potentially return Iraq to pre-2007 levels of violence.
The Iraqi government is concerned over Iyad Alawi and his position in the administration. There is a general believe that he may be positioning himself with the Iraqi Army to lead a military coup, to take over the country. Should Alawi be successful in this plan and does manage to take control of Iraq, it is believed that he will hand over power to Al-Sharef Ali Abn Al-Hussein; the last heir to the previous monarchy in Iraq. Sensitive insider information suggests that this plan is clandestinely supported by the UK, with whom Hussein and his family before him had enjoyed close relations. Further local reporting would suggest that Maliki is taking this threat seriously and is attempting to counter the threat, by canvasing and pre-positioning those Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police under his full control. Recently Maliki transferred to key commanders from the Ninewa operation command to Baghdad, a move taken by some that he was maneuvering those Iraqi Army commanders loyal to him, closer to the capital, in a defensive move to protect his position.The order to transfer the Commander of Ninewa Operations, General Hassan Karim Khudhier to the Ministry of Defense and the Commander of the 2nd Army Division, Major-General, Nasser Ahmed al-Ghannam to Baghdad Rusafa Operations Command was made by Maliki personally.
Last month, an arrest warrant has been issued for the independent MP Sabah Al-Saadi. Saadi has been outspoken recently against Maliki and the still empty security ministries. He is a member of the Integrity Commission and also made comments after Maliki effectively removed the head of the organization. This move is even more evidence of a ‘fragile leader’, under pressure from his critics. This move has angered the Sadrist bloc, with Muqtada al-Sadr also quoting Maliki’s liquidation of the media as a move towards “building a new dictatorship”. In a recent article by an Iraqi columnist, Maliki has been dubbed as a ‘Democ-tator’, an apt play on words for the current perceptions of the populous.
As early as 2008, Maliki was being widely criticized by the Islamic Party, the Sunni bloc, Kurds and even fellow Shi’a political entities outside his Al Dawa Party, as being over ambitious and at the extreme ‘autocratic’. If Maliki continues on the road of flouting the Constitution, undermining the legislature and judiciary; and hindering the military’s evolution in becoming apolitical, he is likely to receive the full force of those already in opposition, with many in the wings who will be swayed to join them. However, should a political solution be lacking? There is undoubtedly another threat to Maliki’s ambitions. The Arab Spring has taught the Iraq people many lessons; they were quick to support the Bahraini people in their recent protests; and should they see no improvement in the present administration, there is strong evidence to suggest that they may again return to the streets to attempt to change their own leadership. In this case, the only entity capable of keeping ‘the wolf from the door’ is the military; who if swayed, would surely have the last say in Iraq’s future.
As ever in Iraq’s struggle since the demise of Saddam Hussein, external actors have played a key role on both flanks in maintaining instability in the new democracy. Currently, Syria is in no position to be involved in any executive action, as they have their own problems at home. This really only leaves Iran, which obviously having fought an eight year war with the previous regime, has no desire to see a similar Iraq emerge from the ashes of Saddam Hussein’s legacy. As a result, they sought to influence Iraq’s politics by means of diplomacy, security, intelligence and economics. It is also rumored that the Iranians financed competing Kurdish and Sunni groups as a way of encouraging financial dependency. However, now that a Shi’a dominated government has been re-installed in Baghdad, the Iranians may feel less inclined to interfere in the south and disengage from instigating militia led armed action. Nevertheless, the presence of a sympathetic and non-threatening government in Baghdad will no doubt ensure that insidious interference by Iran will continue indefinitely to keep Iraq on the right track.
A change in government; however, particularly one with strong Sunni influence under Alawi would stifle Iran’s ambitions to export their own particular brand of Islamic revolution, Iraq’s multi-sectarian and multi-ethnic population makes this concept completely untenable. Any such action would be completely out of Iran’s hands and may well totally catch Iraq’s neighbor off-guard. It is thought that Iran are bidding their time for the US withdrawal from Iraq; and it would appear they have had an influence on Muqtada al-Sadr’s decision to stand down his Jaish al-Mahdi and perhaps those more extremist elements not under his control, in such a way that Maliki and his administration has no ammunition to request any extension of US forces after the deadline of the Status of Forces Agreement expires. Once Iran has achieved this goal, they can continue to more aggressively influence Iraq’s development, with the ever present threat of regionalization in the now oil rich south-east region, providing a difficult balancing act for any central administration.
David Clark, Non-Resident Scholar, INEGMA