Maliki papers some cracks, opens others
By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - Provincial elections in Iraq are set for January 31, and Prime
Minister Nuri al-Maliki's photos are plastered all over Baghdad. The premier
himself is not on the ballot, but members of his team are bracing themselves
for what they see will be a smashing comeback, having lost much of their
political clout - due to deteriorating security - since 2006.
Iraqis will elect new provincial councils in 14 of the country's 18 provinces.
Excluded are the three Kurdish provinces in northern Iraq and the province of
Tamim, which includes the disputed city of Kirkuk, claimed by Kurds, Arabs and
Turkmen, and key for the control of its surrounding area's huge oil reserves.
Campaign posters are using Maliki's image, and some been
vandalized; showing him with a protruding moustache, a pirate's eye patch, or
even sprouting a beard. Others remain intact, showing him tough, serious, with
a slight smile.
Maliki is trying to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Iraqis, and although
originally coming from an Islamic group, the Da'wa Party, he has not used
religious rhetoric in this campaign. Rather, he has tried to appeal to the
widest range possible of ordinary Iraqis, promising better security, running
water and non-stop electricity, among other things.
This week, he launched an initiative to send 50,000 Iraqi students on grants
and scholarships to the United States, for undergraduate, graduate and doctoral
studies. Selection will be based on merit, he noted, and not on any sectarian
In this sense, Maliki has matured, acting like a pan-Iraqi statesmen, and not
as a petty Shi'ite politician, bunkered in the narrow alleys of Iraqi
sectarianism. And surprisingly, this change is paying off, with many young
Iraqis willing to give him the final benefit of the doubt.
Although most Iraqis were concerned about the Security of Forces Agreement
(SOFA) which was ratified by the Iraqi government and the United States in late
2008, many are now eagerly anticipating its first breakthrough this summer.
That is when the widely hated US troops will move out of Iraqi towns and
cities, giving Iraqis what one friend called "visual relaxation". Iraqis are
happy that they won't be stopped at foreign-manned checkpoints, nor will they
have to see US troops at every corner of the Iraqi capital.
Somehow, Maliki has convinced a wide variety of people that the SOFA - in its
present form - would never have passed had it not been for his relentless
lobbying with former president George W Bush. It is the first step towards
independence, with the second step being when US troops withdraw completely in
In the provincial elections, Maliki is supporting a new list, the Coalition of
the State for Law. It includes a broad range of politicians, Sunnis, Shi'ites
and some Kurds, and has alarmed those who were speculating that Maliki's days
The shoe-throwing incident last December, when Maliki extended his arm to
protect Bush from footware thrown by an Iraqi journalist, was viewed at the
time as political suicide by a disgruntled Iraqi public.
Strangely, Maliki has sprung back into life, via the interpretation of the SOFA
that he has sold the Iraqis. Critics fear that if he wins the provincial
elections, he will become another strongman, just like Saddam Hussein.
His campaign, stressing strong central government and no more concessions for
Kurds and Sadrists, is raising eyebrows in political circles of Baghdad. These
are words that Maliki has often said, but this time he seems serious on
implementing them. He is planning to crack down on Kurdish ambitions at
annexing the oil-rich Kirkuk region, and wants to strike at all militias,
whether Sunni, Kurdish or even Shi'ite, to prove himself as a man of the law.
Just this week, however, he sent notice to the Awakening Councils, a
100,000-man army of Sunni tribesmen armed by the United States to combat
al-Qaeda in Iraq. At first, Maliki strongly opposed the creation of the
councils, claiming they legitimized Sunni arms of the "Sunni insurgency", at
the expense of Shi'ites. Once through with combating al-Qaeda, the Sunni
Awakening Councils, he claimed, would turn their arms first on the Americans,
and then on Shi'ites.
More recently, under US pressure, and to accommodate Iraqi domestics, Maliki
has accepted incorporating the Awakening Council members into the security
services and civil service - in limited numbers. The merging of Awakening
members into the security forces has been granted a deadline by the prime
minister, "no further than three months".
To date, of the 100,000 Awakening members, only 20% have been incorporated into
the police and security services. While previously they received a salary of
US$300 per month (paid by the Americans), they now get a little less than $200.
Maliki wants the job to look and feel difficult for members of the Awakening
Councils, to discourage them from joining, hoping that all police and security
will remain in the hands of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), which
runs the Ministry of Interior and is all Shi'ite.
Also this week, Maliki passed a law forbidding any retired official (over the
age of 63) from assuming any senior government job. That sent shockwaves
through the Sunni community, since most senior officials (now retired) from the
Saddam era, were Sunnis. The highest post they could attain after retirement
from their original job, the prime minister's decree said, would be that of
"advisor" to any government agency.
Although accommodating on some fronts, Maliki clearly is not budging on others.
As his orders were channeled to the Awakening Councils, a senior and outspoken
Sunni commander - the vice president of the Awakening Councils - was wounded in
a terrorist attack near his home in southwest Iraq.
Many believe the attack was carried out by Maliki's team, with no intention of
killing him, just muting his criticism of the prime minister's actions. In as
much as several heavyweight Sunni tribesmen are not pleased with Maliki,
neither are leading members of the Kurdish bloc.
A Kurdish parliamentarian who is a friend-turned-foe of Maliki, said, "We got
rid of the dictator and nightmare Saddam Hussein to get this new dictator
wearing the uniform of democracy."
This week, speaking on behalf of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which has a base
in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, Murad Karbalan called Maliki "ungrateful"
and accused him of having "no good intentions towards the Kurds".
The Kurds are furious with Maliki for having fallen back on his promises by
stalling on a referendum in Kirkuk to decide whether it becomes a part of the
autonomous Kurdish region, and doing nothing to halt Iranian and Turkish
attacks on Kurdistan.
Karbalan warned, "We have not taken a hostile attitude towards you [Maliki],
until now. On the contrary, we supported you at one point, but you are now
working against us." He was speaking of the strong Kurdish support given to the
Iraqi leader when Sunnis and fellow Shi'ites walked out on his government in
the summer of 2007. The Kurds rallied rank-and-file behind him, hoping to
advance their own interests.
Given boiling Sunni and Kurdish anger, it is no surprise that Maliki has
ordered a ban on all automobile traffic on the day of the provincial elections,
fearing terrorist attacks. He also asked the US to intervene to protect voters,
and ordered a large contingent of 15,000 troops to patrol Karbala on the day of
voting, where Sunni armed men loyal to Shi'ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr are
The circle is seemingly never complete for Maliki. When he first assumed office
in 2006, he had the strong backing of fellow Shi'ites, and reasonable backing
from Sunnis, who hoped he would work towards rapprochement with the Sunni
community. They joined his cabinet in good faith, but quickly turned on him
when they saw his clear favoritism towards Shi'ites.
Maliki did nothing to bring them back into government, preferring instead to
invest in Muqtada and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim of the SIIC. When Muqtada walked out
on him, he navigated towards the Kurds, to fill in the gap left by the Sadrist
Now, the Sunnis are divided. Some are back on board, hoping to extract reforms
from him, for having voted in favor of the SOFA. Others, mainly armed tribesmen
of the Awakening Councils, still cannot tolerate Maliki.
Last week, adding insult to injury, Maliki lobbied with his followers in Da'wa
to reject a Sunni candidate for the post of speaker of parliament. Using their
30-seat influence in parliament, they brought down Iyad Samarae, the candidate
for the Iraqi Islamic Party. They claimed that he was not qualified because he
had dual nationality (without mentioning his other passport's origin).
That seemed lame for many Iraqis, who questioned why Sunnis could not hold dual
nationality while Iraqi heavyweights like ex-prime ministers Ibrahim Jaafari
and Iyad Allawi (both Shi'ites) were entitled to two passports, while Sunnis
like Samarae were not.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.