DAMASCUS - Leaders worry about how history will label them. Adolf Hitler once
said he wanted nothing to be written on his tombstone - the name would explain
itself. Hitler might have thought he would be remembered as a great leader who
brought pride and justice to Germany. Most recall him as a failed military
leader who destroyed Europe.
Similarly, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki - whose days in office are
surely numbered - might want to to be remembered as the man who brought
democracy and justice to Iraqis; the man who
rooted out terrorism and killed al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Instead, Iraqis will remember Maliki as a selfish, sectarian politician who
divided the country as never before, between Shi'ites and Sunnis. They will
remember the death squads that flourished under his regime, the targeted
assassinations of Sunni notables, and they will see him as a stooge of the
Americans who was unable to fulfill any of the promises he made when coming to
power in May 2006.
Maliki's problem is that his government is not constitutional, as his cabinet
no longer represents all parties that are seated in Parliament. Thirteen out of
37 ministers have walked out, and more are likely to follow soon.
The first to abandon him were six Shi'ite ministers from the Sadrist bloc in
April. They objected to his relationship with the United States, and his
failure to secure a timetable for US troop withdrawal from Iraq. They were
followed by Sunni Justice Minister Hashem al-Shibli from the Iraqi List that is
headed by former prime minister Iyad Allawi.
This week, five Sunni ministers from the Iraqi Accordance Front stepped down,
along with Sunni Salam al-Zoubai, who was deputy prime minister. They claimed
this was because Maliki had not responded to any of the 11 demands they had
made, which included greater decision-making for Sunnis, and a political
amnesty for Sunni prisoners.
Then came the resignation of nine senior officers from the Iraqi Army,
including Baker Zebari, the commander-in-chief. All of them were objecting to
how the prime minister is running affairs.
Adnan Duleimi of the Iraqi Accordance Front explained his party's withdrawal:
"The [Accordance] Front has reached a dead end with Maliki, who takes decisions
on his own without consulting with anybody. He then claims that these decisions
Tarek al-Hashemi, a vice president who is a member of the Front, said the
withdrawal was final and it would be "an opportunity for Maliki to run his
cabinet without the Accordance Front, which he says is the source of all
problems". He added that the upcoming weeks will be "scandalous" for Maliki's
The hammer blow for Maliki could be if Allawi's four remaining ministers on the
United Iraqi List abandon the cabinet, as they have hinted they will do soon.
Allawi, who has his eyes set on becoming prime minister, said his party is
"studying" a walkout similar to that of the Iraqi Accordance Front.
If this happens, the Maliki cabinet will no longer have any Sunnis, any
Christians, or any Shi'ites representing Muqtada al-Sadr, the strongman of the
Shi'ite community who is popular among the poor and the young of Baghdad. It
still has Kurdish elements, mainly because of Maliki's support for their claims
in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
While news of the latest walkouts ripped through Baghdad this week, so did four
horrendous terrorist attacks that left 109 people dead (74 of them in the
capital) and ended whatever hope Iraqis had that Maliki can bring them
With it seemingly just a question of when, rather than if, Maliki goes, four
names are already being bandied about as his replacement.
Iyad Allawi. He is the best known of the candidates but does not
stand a high chance because of his secular views in a country now dominated by
radical Islam. Allawi, a former Ba'athist who was close to the US Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA), helped bring down the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003
and became prime minister for an interim period in 2004.
During this time he waged war against Muqtada. Media reports portrayed Allawi
as a "small Saddam" because he was willing to go to great lengths to get things
done his way. One story is that while he was visiting a police station, two
troublemakers were arrested and dragged in for interrogation. Allawi reportedly
shot them both with his own pistol. This anecdote has been milked to death by
his supporters, who use it show the world that this is the kind of leader Iraq
needs - someone who is able to centralize power.
Some believe that Iraq needs a strongman - not a Saddam, but a strong leader
who has the ability and the will to crush militias like Muqtada's Mahdi Army,
the Badr Organization, the armed wing of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council
(SIIC), and the Kurdish peshmerga.
Allawi has repeatedly said he does not think Iraq is ready for the kind of
democracy imposed by the Americans in 2003 - it has to get rid of tribalism and
sectarianism first. Therefore, if he were to return to power, security, rather
than democracy, would be first on his agenda. The former medical doctor has
been criticizing Maliki since last year, and recently toured the Arab world to
drum up support for a comeback. Domestically, however, he does not have much of
a power base.
Mahdi al-Hafez. Hafez is the least-known candidate but probably
the best bet. He is a secular Shi'ite and a strong-minded nationalist like his
former colleague and friend Allawi. What makes him different is that his name
is not blemished with murky relations with the CIA, or any other intelligence
agencies. He also does not command a militia.
Hafez has a bachelor of arts in chemistry and a master's in sociology, as well
as a PhD in economics, and worked at the Ministry of Oil from 1975 to 1979.
When Saddam came to power in 1979, he was appointed ambassador at the United
Nations, a post he held until 1980, and then headed the Arab Economic Research
Association in Cairo.
He returned to Iraq in 2003 as an ally of Sunni leader Adnan al-Pachachi and
was earmarked to become prime minister in the post-Saddam era, but instead
landed the job of minister of planning in the interim government.
Like Allawi, Hafez has voiced his distrust of Iran and promised to disarm the
militias, saying that security comes way ahead of political reforms on his
agenda. In recent weeks, seeing the handwriting on the wall for Maliki, Hafez
has started his campaign to become premier, visiting a number of senior Sunni
and Shi'ite clerics, including the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Unlike
Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Allawi, who were both given a chance and failed at
getting Iraq together, Hafez is new and untried.
Ibrahim al-Jaafari. Maliki's former boss, he is the founder and
president of the Da'wa Party, one of the earliest Islamic parties in Iraq. He
is currently supported by Muqtada, something that raises his chances of
becoming prime minister.
Jaafari learned from his previous mistakes, and those of his successor. He has
already stretched out a working hand to Sunnis, claiming that they should be
given the presidency if he becomes prime minister. This is music to the ears of
Sunnis, who long for the post they have held, with no interruptions, since
Jaafari claims this will facilitate reconciliation and "comfort the surrounding
Arabs" and reassure such countries as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt that Iraq
has not become a satellite state of Iran.
When Jaafari left office early last year, an average of 25 Iraqis were dying
per day. Today, under Maliki, the number has reached 100. But Jaafari also left
behind a country scarred by sectarian violence and filled with mass graves. The
only thing that makes him better than Maliki is that Jaafari is more
experienced and well connected in the Arab world.
Both men, however, are products of political Islam. Both are sectarian and both
are allied to Muqtada. During his tenure in office, Jaafari refused to disarm
the Mahdi Army, because it gave his regime legitimacy and protection. The same
is true of Maliki. Both turned a blind eye to the death squads that operated
under the watchful eye of the Ministry of Interior. Both have old scores to
settle with the Sunnis, although Jaafari seems to sound more reasonable
Jaafari admires the theocracy in Iran, but he doesn't take orders from Tehran.
He strives to copy the political system - which is dangerous - because the
ultimate goal of his party is to create an Iran-style regime in Iraq. During
the 1980s, Da'wa split after Saddam arrested and killed nearly 70,000 of its
members in Iraq. One faction went to Syria, centered on Maliki. The other went
to London, headed by Jaafari. Only a small group went to Iran, because Jaafari
insisted that he did not want to make his party an organ for the Iranian
regime. During his London periods, Jaafari was a preacher to the Iraqi
Adel Abdul-Mehdi. A permanent candidate for the premiership,
Mehdi holds the post of vice president. He is a Shi'ite notable and a ranking
member of the SIIC. He studied at an American school in Iraq, where his father
had been a respected minister during the years of the Hashemite monarchy. He
fled the Ba'athist regime in 1969 and lived in France, working with think-tanks
and political magazines and newspapers.
Mehdi is a longtime member of the SIIC, which was based in Iran during the
years of the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88. It was accused of being more Iranian
than Iraqi, especially for letting its militia, the Badr Organization, fight
with the Iranians against the Iraqi army.
Last year, Mehdi ran for the premiership against Jaafari. These were the
elections held within the ruling United Iraqi Alliance. Because of his
loyalties to Iran, he lost by one vote because of Muqtada's bloc, which opposed
Iranian meddling in Iraqi affairs.
The SIIC is a strong party that is ironically supported by both the US and
Iran. Its president, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, is a close friend of US President
George W Bush. The SIIC controls the Interior Ministry and has used this under
Maliki (and Jaafari before him) to settle scores with the Sunnis, especially
those who worked under Saddam.
If he comes to power, Mehdi will be no less sectarian than Maliki. But instead
of courting the Mahdi Army, as Maliki has done, he would crush it, and promote
his own SIIC-led militia, the Badr Organization. Mehdi is opposed by Sunnis and
outspoken critics of Iran, such as Muqtada, explaining why Muqtada has extended
support to Jaafari rather than Mehdi.
While these four main candidates intensify their campaigns, and Maliki
frantically tries to piece together his crumbling coalition, the Arab
neighborhood watches with some concern.
The pro-US Arab states have been very blunt in opposing Maliki, because of his
relations with Iran and his well-known animosity toward Sunnis. Recently, they
turned down an offer by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to support the
One telling fact, however, is that at a press conference with his US
counterpart, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said his country will sent a
mission to study the reopening of its embassy in Baghdad. When asked when this
would happen, the Saudi minister refused to disclose a date, claiming that it
would be in the near future. But he added that the Saudis are concerned because
terrorists are coming from Iraq into the kingdom, and not the other way around,
as Iraqi officials have been saying. What one might conclude from the Saudi
minister's words is that Saudi Arabia will open a mission in Baghdad once
Maliki is gone.
One cannot help but recall Maliki's first speech to the Iraqi people, broadcast
in April 2006 when he was still prime minister-designate. He said, "Our Sunni
brothers, by their participation in a broad alliance, have begun to carry
responsibilities in the political process ... which will dry up the sources of
terrorism. Fighting the insurgency will be my government's priority." He said
he hoped to do so by creating "a white front" of Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds and
that he would create a non-sectarian government to ward off accusations made by
observers claiming that he was "too Shi'ite".
Maliki then addressed the Sunnis directly by playing down fears that Iran was
interfering in Iraqi affairs. He thanked neighboring countries such as Iran for
sheltering the Iraqi opposition during Saddam's era, saying, "But this does not
mean any country can meddle in our affairs." Gratitude did not mean security
interference, he added. Earlier, Maliki had said, "The weapons must be in the
hands of the state. Their presence in the hands of others [militias] will be
the start of problems that will trigger a civil war."
Rather than collect arms and root out militias, Maliki did the exact opposite.
He will leave office amid a civil war - a very ugly one - that is largely due
to his own doing.