Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Iraqi elections: 10 reasons why Nuri al-Maliki will win the battle but ultimately lose the war

Most analysts believe that Nuri al-Maliki will win a third term as prime minister in this week's parliamentary elections.  How did Maliki rise from relative obscurity to become Iraq's most powerful political actor?  What can his rise to power tell us about the direction in which Iraqi politics is heading? 

Maliki emerged from relative obscurity in 2006 and was chosen as prime minister for a number of reasons, perhaps the most important of which was the inefficacy of his predecessor, Ibrahim al-Ja'fari.  In this post, I view Maliki less as an individual politician than as symptomatic of the destructive course of Iraqi politics, especially since 2010.

Below I list 10 strategies Maliki has used to consolidate his power.  In a future post, I will analyze in greater detail the "sectarian authoritarian" game that Maliki and his elite have chosen to play, as opposed to the "civic democratic" game" that Iraq requires from its political leaders if it is to develop political stability, meaningful democracy, and economic prosperity.  Here I argue that Maliki's victory in the 2014 elections will actually bring about his downfall.

Strategy 1: Creating an image of a "strong man" (al-qabaday)

When Maliki became prime minister in 2006, he had no significant power base.  He was perceived as weak leader.  That all changed when Maliki, with minimal or no coordination with US forces, launched an attack on the Mahdi Army (JAM) in the southern port of Basra in March 2008.

Although Iraqi forces required US air support, Maliki's successful campaign earned him widespread accolades . Residents of Basra were especially grateful to see and end to the violence, crime and terror to which the city had been subjected by the JAM, other militias and crime syndicates.  Indeed, I remember reading in the Iraqi press at the time of merchants, who had formerly had no respect for the prime minister, now boasting of having his photograph in their cell phone display.

Maliki followed his suppression of the JAM in Basra, and subsequently in Baghdad's Sadr (Revolution) City, and the border town of Amara, with military brinksmanship against the Kurds.  He sent Iraqi army units into areas that the Kurdish leadership sought to incorporate into the KRG, such as Kirkuk and Khanaqin.  In the latter instance, the Iraqi army and the Pesh Merga almost came to blows.

Both these moves showed Maliki to be a shrewd politician.  In one instance he eliminated a powerful militia in the form of the JAM, while in the second he sent a message to the Kurdish leadership that it would pay a price should it attempt to seize disputed land along the so-called Green Line dividing the KRG from Arab Iraq.  In the process, Maliki also won the support of Sunni Arab tribes and tribal leaders south of the Green Line who feared losing their lands to the KRG.

Strategy 2:  Undermine the viability of cross-ethic alliances in favor of sectarian coalitions

Maliki's calculus has been to establish a power base in the conservative, professional and religious Shi'i middle classes.  Following Saddam's pattern of including a few token Shi'a in his regime, e.g., Sadun al-Hamadi, and Naim Haddad, Maliki has appointed his own token Sunnis, e.g., Acting Defense Minister, Sadun al-Dulaymi.  Despite the negative rhetoric between Maliki and the KRG leadership, the Kurds have become his de facto ally because they prevent Sunni Arabs and secular forces from effectively challenging his rule.

After losing the 2010 parliamentary elections to the al-Iraqiya Coalition, led by Ayad Allawi, 91 to 89 seats, Maliki has worked vigorously to undermine cross-ethic/cross-confessional alliances, the actual political preference of the majority of Iraqis.  Maliki was shocked that his State of Law lost to a coalition - al-Iraqiya - led by a Shiite, but one that attracted many votes not just from Sunni Arabs but from secular Shiites and even Kurds, e.g., in Kirkuk.

It was during the post-2010 elections that Maliki's sectarian policies really began to manifest themselves.  Maliki outmaneuvered both Allawi and al-Iraqiya, knowing that he would encounter little opposition from the Obama administration that wanted to rid itself of the Iraq conflict.  Maliki formed an alliance with the Kurds, who did not want a government with a strong Sunni Arab presence, and argued that the State of Law's 89 seats combined with the Kurds 57 seats, trumped al-Iraqiya's 91 seats, a constitutionally dubious argument and political maneuver.

Meanwhile, Maliki agreed to a US proposal to give Ayad Allawi a position in the government as head of a new National Council for Security Affairs and the right to choose the ministers of defense and interior.  However, no sooner had he agreed to this deal at the Arbil summit arranged by KRG president, Masoud Barzani, in November 2010 to end the leadership dispute between Maliki and Allawi, then he reneged on the agreement leaving Allawi thoroughly marginalized.

Strategy 3:  Eliminate all countervailing sources of power and authority
Having seen the judicial system fail to overturn the election results after he challenged them in court in the spring of 2010, Maliki quickly moved to eliminate any government agency that could challenge his rule.  He removed the autonomy of the High Independent Electoral Commission, put the Rafidain Bank (Iraq's central bank) under his control, and began pressuring the judiciary to adjudicate cases in ways that supported his policies.

Of course, Maliki could not afford to ignore the military and security force which he began to restructure to his liking and along sectarian lines.  Promises to integrate 80,000 members of the "Awakening" forces (Sahwat al-'Iraq) were not kept.  Instead, Maliki made sure that critical units were headed by officers loyal you him.  In light of the continued security problems in Baghdad and elsewhere, it is not surprising that there have been many complaints that competent security officers have been let go in favor of those who support Maliki.

Strategy 4: Sideline the Iraqi parliament, and discredit powerful Sunni Arab leaders

Maliki has ignored the Iraqi parliament.  Often unable to arrive at a quorum because not enough delegates are in attendance, the parliament has struggled to provide a check on the power of the prime minister.  Rather than open his cabinet and other high level appointment to parliament's scrutiny, under their mandated right of "advise and consent," Maliki has made numerous acting appointments, e.g., the defense minister and head of the Rafidain Bank, as a means of circumventing the parliament.

Maliki has also attacked powerful Sunni Arab leaders who were unwilling to cow-tow to his authority.  Two of the most prominent Sunni Arab politicians are former Iraqi vice president Tariq al-Hashimi and former finance minister Rafi' al-Issawi, both of whom were accused of sponsoring terrorism - a highly dubious accusation, especially in the case of the popular al-Issawi who most politicians consider a moderate.  In the case of al-Hashimi, Maliki was able to have the courts sentence him to death in absentia, even though his body guards, who purportedly supplied evidence against him, claim that they were tortured

Maliki realizes that the position of Speaker of the Parliament is potentially a very powerful one.  He has not been able to marginalize the current speaker, Usama al-Nujayfi - one of the few politicians Maliki must consider in his calculations as to how to wield and consolidate power.  Maliki has tried co-opting al-Nujayfi and was successful for a time when the speaker split with Ayad Allawi to form the so-called "White Iraqiya."  But al-Nujayfi, whose base is in the Sunni Arab community, remains a "wide card" who will continue to be one of the few political actors able to challenge Maliki.

Strategy 5: Keep constant pressure on the Kurdish leadership on oil wealth

Maliki is aware that the KRG possesses a powerful economic weapon in its local oil and natural gas reserves.  One of the fears shared by Iraq's Arab political elite is that the KRG will leverage its hydrocarbon wealth to establish an independent state, one closely allied with Turkey.

Thus Maliki's government - often in statements by Minister of Oil, Husayn al-Sharastani - constantly accuses the Kurds of attempting to use the revenues derived from oil production for the KRG's parochial interests, rather than those of Iraq as a whole.  KRG efforts to develop its oil resources and export them through Turkey are characterized as an attempt to "steal" Iraq's oil wealth.

By continuing to raise issues about the KRG's oil exploration and production, Maliki hopes to scare foreign investors in thinking that they will be excluded from more lucrative contracts in Iraq's southern oilfields if they do business with the KRG.  He also hopes to restrain Turkey's support for the KRG because Turkey seeks to have access to the Arab and not just Kurdish Iraqi market.

Strategy 6: Institutionalize the sectarian "spoils" system (nizam al-muhassat)

Because there are no overarching political parties in Iraq - ones that are broadly based - Maliki has used a "to the victor goes the spoils" system to reward coalition partners.  Thus ministries and their budgets are allocated to different Shi'i political cliques (al-shillal), based on their power and support for his government.

In this model, the focus is not on the Iraqi government providing services to the public, but according to a definition of politics as "who gets what, when, where and how," to paraphrase the late Harold Lasswell.  By institutionalizing this system of governance, Maliki not only promotes sectarianism, but spurs on the already extensive corruption that plagues the Iraqi state.

Strategy 7: Marginalize the poor Shi'a thereby eliminating their power to challenge him

After the Mahdi Army was suppressed in 2008, Muqtada al-Sadr mounted an even more effective challenge to Maliki by winning a sizable bloc of seats in the Iraqi parliament.  His bloc - the "Ahrar" - became a platform through which al-Sadr and his followers have consistently been able to attack Maliki for failing to provide government services and to suppress the pervasive corruption within the Iraqi state.

To disrupt the Sadrist campaign against him, Maliki turned to an unlikely ally, the so-called League of the Righteous People (Asa'ib Ahl al-Haqq), led by a former JAM commander, Shaykh Qais al-Khazali, who split with Muqtada al-Sadr.  With the JAM largely disbanded, the League has military superiority over the Sadrists, with whom it has fought on numerous occasions.

Its policy is to establish itself  as the "true" representative of the Shi'a poor, and defending Iraq's Shi'a against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) and other radical Sunni Islamist groups.  Recently, the League began offering candidates for parliamentary seats as well, all the while seeking to replace the Sadrists as the champions of the Shi'a downtrodden.  In the process, the League has won the praise of Maliki who sees it as dividing the Shi'a poor by eroding the power of the Sadrists.

Strategy 8: Maintain ties with Iran and seek non-American arms supplies to hold the US in check 

To reduce pressure from the US to introduce economic and political reforms, Maliki retains close ties with Iran.  Ironically, the nation-state that the US most wanted to marginalize with its 2003 invasion of Iraq was Iran, one of the 3 members of the "Axis of Evil."  If the US exerts too much pressure, Maliki can always promote policies that counter US regional interests, e.g., facilitating Iran's ability to deliver arms and materiel to Bashar al-Asad's Ba'thist regime in Syria.

Maliki recently turned to Russia to purchase helicopters to fight ISIS and al-Qa'ida forces in al-Anbar Province.  At the same time, the parliamentary Security and Defense Committee was conveniently complaining about the US delay in delivering modern armaments to Iraq.  It called on Maliki to find other sources of arms.  In this context, Maliki has mobilized a campaign to keep the US silent in light of his efforts to construct a neo-authoritarian regime based in sectarian identities.

Strategy 9:  Blame (Sunni) Saudi Arabia for terrorism in Iraq to promote Shi'i sectarianism

Maliki continues to issue declarations blaming Saudi Arabia, and by extension the Arab Gulf states, for sponsoring terrorist groups in Iraq.  While there is little doubt that individual wealthy donors in the Gulf have contributed funds to radical Sunni Islamist groups fighting in Syria and Iraq, Maliki's charge that the sectarian violence that Iraq is experiencing is the responsibility of the KSA and its Gulf allies is unwarranted.

A more pernicious goal underlying the constant accusations against the Saudi and Arab Gulf states is to promote a divide between the Shi'a and Sunni Arabs in Iraq.  Just like Saddam Husayn's so-called  al-Qadisiya Campaign during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, when the Iraqi leader focused on the purported age-old hatred of the Persians (Iran) for the Arabs, so Maliki is trying to create the obverse.

Implicitly he is turning al-Qadisiya on its head by arguing that Sunni Muslims despise the Shi'a.  This campaign is intended to shift Iraqi social and political preferences for cross-ethnic and cross-confessional interactions - seen, for example, in the traditionally high rate of Sunni-Shi'i intermarriage - from horizontally (inter-ethnic/confessional) to vertically based identities (intra- ethnic/confessional).  In the process, Maliki is, along with his supporters in the political elite, seeking to realign Iraqi politics along sectarian lines.

Strategy 10:  Support domestic policies that encourage sectarian identities

During the fall of 2013, the Basra based Virtue Party (Hizb al-Fadila) introduced a new personal status law that would apply to Iraq's Shi'i population.  Called the Qanun al-Ahwal al-Shakhsiya al-Ja'fari, this law radically restricts the rights of Iraqi women.  Although al-Fadila was at one point opposed to Maliki, e.g., during the parliamentary hearings in 2009 charging the Minister of Trade, Abd al-Falah al-Sudani, and other State of Law ministers with corruption, it is now aligned with Maliki.

Despite an outcry from women and secular Iraqis, especially because Iraq currently possesses one of the most progressive personal status laws in the Middle East, Maliki has not opposed the new law.  The proposed personal status law would lower the age at which a woman could be forced to marry from 18 to 9, legitimize marital rape and restrict a Shi'i woman's ability to travel without a husband or male relative.
The reason that Maliki has not opposed the law is political, rather than being concerned with the status of women.  It is part of a strategy to undermine cross-ethnic and cross-confessional cooperation by fostering vertically rather than horizontally based identities.  If the Shi'a pass their own personal status law, then the Sunni Arabs will probably follow suit, creating the type of confessional system found in Lebanon.  If Maliki and his fellow sectarian entrepreneurs (tujjar al-siyasa) are successful, it will make secular coalitions that cross ethnic and confessional lines all that more difficult to mobilize in the future.

Winning the battle but losing the war

Maliki has followed a politically shrewd strategy to increase his power and influence.  As noted above, he will probably, after a lengthy struggle, win a third term as prime minister.  However, his victory will be a Pyrrhic one and there will be a steep price to pay.

First, Maliki has alienated almost all of Iraq's political factions - Sunni Arabs, the Kurds, the Sadrists and even parts of the conservative Shi'i middle classes, e.g., the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council.  In light of the hostility he has evoked through his policies and behavior, little in the way of improving social services, let alone confronting nepotism and corruption within the state bureaucracy, will occur.

Second, the security situation will continue to deteriorate.  Iraqi forces have been unable to secure Baghdad and have made little headway in suppressing ISIS insurgents in al-Anbar Province.  Commenting on the ineptitude of Iraqi security forces, an Iraqi observer noted that no high ranking officers were lost during the 8 years of the Iran-Iraq War while a number, including at least one general, have already been killed in only a short time in al-Anbar (see al-Hayat, Apr. 18).  His point was to underscore the lack of competence of Iraq's military and security forces.

Third, Maliki will find that, Iraq's massive hydrocarbon wealth, oil and natural gas, notwithstanding, foreign investors will be increasingly loathe to invest in (Arab) Iraq's energy sector, given the increased political instability and deteriorating security situation.  As Grand Ayatollah Ali -al-Sistani recently noted, in criticizing Maliki's new budget for the coming fiscal year, economic growth is entirely predicated on hydrocarbon wealth to the exclusion of all other sectors of the economy.

Finally, if the already unacceptable high rate of poverty increases, due to the lack of any social policy designed to attack unemployment and provide job training, and Maliki continues to alienate large numbers of Sunni Arabs by accusing them of supporting terrorism, he could find himself facing major threats to the north and as well to the south. Unable to provide security in the Iraqi capital, he may find himself increasingly a Hamid Karzai type ruler, largely isolated and confined to Baghdad's Green Zone.

The "fish rots from the head down."  Maliki has made his bed and now he will have to lie in it.