Maliki grasping at Shi'ite straws
By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - An alarmed Iraqi Sunni community has cried foul play following last
week's mass arrests by Iraqi security forces within Sunni districts of the
country. Hundreds of young people were arrested in Baghdad, Tikrit, Anbar and
Mosul, all accused of illegal membership in the 170,000-man Awakening Councils.
These councils were originally founded by the former United States
administration to help combat al-Qaeda. They have since snowballed to become a
nightmare for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who claims that once through with
al-Qaeda, they will target their guns at Shi'ites. Meanwhile, the Judicial
is run by the Interior Ministry passed 77 death sentences in Baghdad last week,
all targeting men accused of terrorism, mostly from the Sunni community.
The clampdown on Sunnis coincides with the release of Qais Khazali, the popular
Shi'ite cleric who has been in jail since March 2007. A former associate of
cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, Khazali was expelled from the Mahdi Army in 2004 and
many now believe that he will be used by Maliki in the March elections to
counterbalance the Sadrist bloc.
Muqtada's team is running for parliament in March in a coalition that that does
not include Maliki. His coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), was
founded last August, and includes influential Shi'ite parties like the Supreme
Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), the Badr Brigade, the Sadrists, ex-prime minister
Ibrahim al-Jaafari and the Fadila Party.
Originally, Maliki had scoffed at the INA, refusing to join them, instead
choosing to run independently in a 40-party coalition headed by him that
includes almost all of his ministers, including the powerful Oil Minister
Hussein al-Shahristani, and a handful of Sunni tribal leaders from the Abu
Risheh clan. Maliki's team, the State of Law Alliance (SoL), had operated on an
independent platform during the provincial elections in January 2009, emerging
victorious, thanks to a secular platform that appealed to both Sunnis and
The prime minister perhaps thought he no longer needed Iran-backed politicians
who were only popular within the Shi'ite community, wanting to come across as a
seasoned statesman who appealed to all Iraqis, regardless of sect or regional
affiliation. Three terrorist attacks in August, October and December, however,
whipped up a death toll of nearly 400 people - making Maliki look incompetent
before his own constituency, shedding serious doubt on whether he would be able
to pull through on his own in March.
Last week, after meeting the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf, Maliki
said that an understanding has been reached between his SoL and the INA,
claiming that they will merge ahead of the elections. The INA threw dust in his
eyes three days later, saying that no such alliance was in the making. Merging
the two groups, it added, was too late, reminding that it had repeatedly tried,
and failed, to get the prime minister to join the INA.
Additionally, they noted, such a merger was no longer constitutionally
possible, given that it passed the given deadline for any election list
modifications. Qasim Dawoud, a member of parliament and ranking member in the
INA, expressed surprise at Maliki's statement, claiming that it was "baseless".
The INA position had Iran's fingerprints all over it, signaling how angry
Tehran is with the prime minister. Maliki, after all, had been brought to power
thanks to the support of Shi'ite allies like the Sadrists and SIIC, back in
2006. The Sadrists, popular at a grassroots level in the slums of Baghdad, had
helped legitimize the prime minister four years ago, when he was still a
political nobody, marketing him in the eyes of young people, and the urban
These young Shi'ites, who detested the United States occupation, were asked to
believe in Maliki, whom they claimed, was not a creation of the US. In exchange
for Sadrist support, Maliki turned a blind eye to the state-within-the state
they had created in Sadr City, rewarding them with strategic cabinet posts like
Health, Education and Commerce. The 30-man Sadrist bloc in parliament firmly
stood by the prime minister as he faced a barrage of criticism from Kurdish and
Sunni opponents, helping bolster his cabinet during the difficult civil war
that took place in 2006-2007.
The SIIC did the same within the upper echelons of the business community in
the Shi'ite community, also helping shelter Maliki from a vote of confidence
within parliament. To think that the prime minister would now turn his back on
both - seeing them as a political embarrassment - was too much to digest. By
the time Maliki realized that he could not win without support of INA members
last week, it was already too late for rapprochement.
Maliki tried to salvage what he could of his deteriorating position, traveling
to Najaf to meet with the grand ayatollah, hoping that by showing up at
Sistani's side, he could help polish his own image in the eyes of ordinary
Shi'ites. He unleashed an iron fist against Sunni youth - regardless of whether
they were in fact involved in any terrorist operations - an attempt to silence
Shi'ite fears of the Awakening Councils, but apparently, that too did not pay
He is now preparing to court the recently released Qais Khazali, who is popular
at a grassroots level within the Shi'ite community. If that also fails, he will
try to use Khazali in reverse, perhaps luring him into the SoL so that he can
challenge the towering influence of the Sadrists. For his part, Muqtada has
been watching developments in relative silence, only saying that if the INA
were to merge with the SoL, Maliki would need to issue a general amnesty,
setting hundreds from the Sadrist bloc free who are in jail for having taken up
arms against the Americans, over the past four years.
Other members of the INA are no longer enthusiastic about joining hands with
the SoL. The Maliki coalition is a losing horse, after all. Thanks to
consecutive bombings, it has lost support of the Iraqi street, and due to
Maliki's earlier election strategy, tarnished its relationship with Iran.
For obvious reasons, the Sunnis, who supported the SoL in the provincial
elections one year ago, are also not going to be voting for Maliki this time
because of repeated clampdowns on the Awakening Council and former Ba'athists.
Although Maliki and heavyweights like Hussein Shahristani might win
independently in March, the State of Law Alliance - without Iran - is doomed to
fail. Observers of the Iraqi scene should start bracing themselves for a
landslide victory of the INA, meaning that heavyweights like Ammar al-Hakim,
Jaafari and Muqtada will be back in the seat of power until 2014 - only this
time without Maliki as premier.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.