'The resistible rise of Nuri al-Maliki'

When faced with a rising tide of violence, largely caused by their own policy mistakes, the US occupation embarked on the reconstitution of an Iraqi military.  The resultant Iraqi security forces, under the control of Nuri al-Maliki, are today on their way to occupying the same role as the armed forces of the Ba’athist regime.

Toby Dodge
22 March 2012

American withdrawal and the December crisis.

On December 15, 2011, in a fortified compound at Baghdad International Airport, the US Secretary of Defence, Leon Panetta, oversaw the formal end of the American military presence in Iraq.

American withdrawal and the December crisis.

On December 15, 2011, in a fortified compound at Baghdad International Airport, the US Secretary of Defence, Leon Panetta, oversaw the formal end of the American military presence in Iraq. The event marked the final departure of US troops, eight years and nine months after the invasion.  Two weeks later, once the final US convoys had slipped across the border into Kuwait, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki declared December 31 ‘Iraq Day’ and sent a celebratory text message to the population declaring the start of a new post-American era, 

‘We are all for Iraq. Glory and honour to the people. I congratulate you and our proud Iraqi people for this historic day. With my love and respect to you and your family. Your brother Nuri al-Maliki’.[1] 

Given the instability, insurgency and civil war that invasion and regime change wrought, the final departure of American troops was greeted with a sense of relief and release by the Iraqi population, once again unambiguously in control of their own destiny.  However, the violent aftermath of regime change was in large part driven by America’s ambitious attempts at re-engineering Iraqi politics after Ba’athist rule.  The celebrations marking the final departure of the US were hence tinged with widespread concern about how the on-going political consolidation would turn out. 

Those Iraqis worrying about the future trajectory of Iraqi politics did not have long to wait for an answer to their fears.  On the evening of the departure ceremony, Iraqi troops and tanks surrounded the houses of the country’s Vice President, Tariq al-Hashimi, its Minister of Finance, Rafi al-Issawi and its Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq.  All three are leading members of the Iraqiyya coalition which gained more votes than the Prime Minister in the March 2010 national elections.  

That night all three politicians were placed under temporary house arrest.  Three of Tariq al-Hashimi’s bodyguards were then arrested.  After four days in detention the trio reappeared on national television.  Their televised confessions denounced the Vice President for paying them to carry out a series of assassinations and bomb attacks.  When the judges issued an arrest warrant for al-Hashimi three more confessions from policemen in the north western town of Fallujah were added.  They claimed that the Vice President, the Minister of Finance, Rafi al-Issawi and senior regional members of their party had set up and run a death squad, Hamas of Iraq, in the town from 2006 onwards.  

However, once these startling confessions were aired, evidence soon emerged to cast doubt on their veracity.  As the ‘facts’ unravelled, those involved in torturing the bodyguards gave a lengthy and detailed interview, explaining how they extracted the confessions but also describing their contents as ‘absurd’.[2] Secondly, US State Department cables released by Wikileaks revealed that as early as 2006, the Iraqi government was using the sustained torture of prisoners in an attempt to produce incriminating evidence against Tariq al-Hashimi.[3] 

The intriguing question underpinning the first post-American political crisis in Iraq is why it happened at all?  Why did Nuri al-Maliki feel the need to move so brutally and dramatically against his political opponents?  On the face of it al-Maliki has proved to be an extremely skilled if Machiavellian politician.  Despite his failure to win the March 2010 national elections, he spent ten months outmanoeuvring inept rivals in Iraqiyya to retain the premiership, without the imposition of meaningful constraints on his power.  Tariq al-Hashimi has certainly been a fixture in Iraqi politics since 2003 and has served as Vice President since 2006.  However, in contrast to the Prime Minister, his post has largely been ceremonial and he is neither a particularly skilled nor popular political operator. Therefore the reasons behind al-Maliki’s move against al-Hashimi and his colleagues may lie in the hinterland beyond Baghdad, in the provincial politics of Iraq where there is still the potential to threaten the Prime Minister. 


U.S. President George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki

Prime Minister of Iraq, Nuri al-Maliki, 27 May, 2008. U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Jessica J. Wilkes. Public Domain

Iraq’s post-regime change constitution was a hurriedly written and controversial document.  In 2005, when it was drafted, it was thought to represent a victory for the two dominant Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party.  Their aim was to keep the autonomous powers they had amassed since 1991 and simultaneously constrain the powers of the central state as much as possible.  To this end the constitution gave regions the right to exercise executive, legislative and judicial authority and demand an equitable share of national oil revenues.  Beyond the Kurdish Regional Government, the constitution gave other governorates the right to become regions.  A referendum to make this happen could be triggered by a provincial council vote. 

During 2011, key Iraqiyya politicians, particularly the Speaker of Parliament Osama al-Nujaifi and al-Hashimi himself came to see the move towards regional decentralisation as the only possible way to limit Nuri al-Maliki’s domination of Iraq.  Al-Maliki’s response in October 2011 was to unleash a fresh wave of arrests across the three of the provinces north of Baghdad - Anbar, Salahaddin and Diyala - who have a Sunni majority. The same three provinces delivered a large percentage of Iraqiyya’s votes in the 2010 election.  

In the aftermath of the crackdown, on October 27, 2011, Salahaddin Council voted to move forward with a referendum.  This was followed by Diyala in mid-December, with Anbar council threatening to follow suit a week later.  More worrying still for al-Maliki, the Shia majority provinces of Basra and Wasit in the south had likewise attempted this move in 2011.  The Prime Minister, when faced with constitutionally legitimate attempts to weaken the central state’s dominance of the provinces, unleashed further repression and exerted his influence over Iraq’s election commission to ensure these referendums never took place.  However, in mid-December, two days before his house was surrounded by Iraqi troops, Vice President al-Hashimi threw his public support behind the federalist movements in both the south and north west of the country saying the people involved “are unwilling to accept further injustice, corruption and bad management from the central government”.[4] 

Against this background, al-Maliki’s move against his own Vice President and Iraqiyya’s role in government can be seen as a very public and brutal attempt to stop the latest and possibly most serious threat to his on-going campaign to centralise power in his own hands. 

The rise and rise of Nuri al-Maliki. 

How did Nuri al-Maliki manage to gain such a dominant position within post-regime change Iraqi politics? Like the vast majority of Iraq’s current ruling elite, al-Maliki was driven into exile by the Ba’athist regime; leaving in 1980 he first fled to Tehran and later to the Syrian capital, Damascus.  After returning to the country in 2003, al-Maliki entered parliament in the first set of national elections in January 2005. His boss, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the leader of the Dawa Islamic Party, then served as interim Prime Minister for twelve months.  By the time of the elections for the first post-invasion full term-government in December 2005, al-Jaafari had alienated a number of key Iraqi politicians as well as the British and American governments.  He was considered to lack the personal dynamism and diplomacy needed to weld the disparate political factions into a coherent coalition government.  After 156 days of increasingly fractious negotiations, al-Maliki was chosen to replace al-Jaafari because of his greater political acumen.  

However, upon taking office in April 2006, al-Maliki was confronted by major problems that constrained his ability to govern. He found himself at the head of a government with very little administrational capacity. The Iraqi state had floundered since its collapse in 2003; al-Maliki had few governmental institutions with which to influence Iraqi society. Similarly, within the government itself the position of Prime Minister is constitutionally weak. In the aftermath of the 2005 elections, the successful political parties divided up the ministerial positions and the resources that came with them. Lacking political leverage, al-Maliki was unable to dominate or even direct his cabinet. Instead he was, at best, a facilitator, attempting to create a degree of consensus amongst his ministers, their powerful party bosses and the US Embassy and military. To make matters worse, al-Maliki was neither the first nor second choice for Prime Minister.  After his appointment in 2006, there was constant speculation about his motives, competency and his ability to stay in power.  Throughout 2006 and 2007, Baghdad was awash with conspiracies to unseat him.  


U.S. President George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki

U.S. President George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. White House photo by Paul Morse. All rights reserved

In order to secure his position, al-Maliki focused his energies on gaining complete control of the security services.  He set about subverting the formal chain of command, tying senior army commanders, paramilitary units and the intelligence services to him personally.  In doing so he ‘coup proofed’ the security forces but also politicised and personalised its chain of command. He created the Office of the Commander in Chief in 2007 and used this platform to appoint and promote senior officers who were personally loyal.  As responsibility for security in each province was handed from the United States military to Iraqi control, the Prime Minister set up a number of operational commands to bring both the army and the police force together under one regional organisation.  These operational commands were run by a single commanding officer who managed all the security services operating in his province.  These officers are appointed and managed from a central office in Baghdad under the control of al-Maliki.  The appointment of these powerful generals reflected the Prime Minister’s personal preferences.   Through the use of these joint operational commands al-Maliki bypassed his security Ministers and their senior commanders and parliamentary oversight, locating control of Iraq’s armed forces in his private office. 

Furthermore, in April 2007, as control of Iraq’s Special Forces was handed from the US to the Iraqi government, a Counter-Terrorism Bureau was set up to manage them at ministerial level.   This effectively removed control of Iraqi Special Forces, with 6,000 men in its ranks, from the Ministries of Defence and Interior and placed them under the direct control of the Prime Minister, well away from legislative control or parliamentary oversight.  This force is considered to be the best trained in the Middle East.  It operates its own detention centres, intelligence gathering and has surveillance cells in every governorate across central and southern Iraq. It now forms al-Maliki’s Praetorian Guard. Since the force was removed from the formal chain of command and from legal oversight, it has become known as the Fedayeen al-Maliki, a reference to their reputation as the Prime Minster’s tool for covert action against his rivals as well as an ironic reference to Saddam’s own highly unpopular militia.[5] 

Finally, al-Maliki moved to bring Iraq’s intelligence services under his direct control. This became apparent when Mohammed al-Shahwani, the head of the National Intelligence Service, came into an increasingly public conflict with Sherwan al-Waeli, appointed by al-Mailki in 2006 to be the Minister of State for National Security Affairs. The National Intelligence Service was established by America’s Central Intelligence Agency and al-Shahwani enjoyed a long and close working relationship with Washington over many years.  Al-Waeli, conversely, was considered to be al-Maliki’s man.[6]  Things came to a head in August 2009 after a series of major bombs in the centre of Baghdad.  Al-Shahwani argued in the Iraqi press that there was clear evidence linking the attacks to Iran.  In the subsequent fallout surrounding the incident al-Shahwani was forced to resign and delivered Iraq’s security services into al-Maliki’s grasp.  

In pursuit of security – but whose? 

The use of Iraq’s security services to personally protect Nuri al-Maliki reached its peak at the end of March 2008.  Al-Maliki believed at that time he faced a coordinated plot to unseat him.  An upsurge in militia violence in the southern port city of Basra would be used as a pretext to push a vote of no confidence through the parliament in Baghdad and unseat al-Maliki as Prime Minister.  To outflank this plot al-Maliki sent four divisions of the Iraqi army into Basra to seize control of the city back from the militias that were threatening his rule.  The resulting military campaign almost ended in disaster and defeat.  This was only avoided by the extended intervention of US troops and air support.  However, al-Maliki used this eventual victory to stamp his authority on the Iraqi government and the armed forces and to reshape his political image country-wide as an Iraqi nationalist and the saviour of the country.  

The Prime Minister’s new image was unveiled in the provincial election campaign of January 2009.  Al-Maliki named his coalition, Dawlat al-Qanoun or ‘State of Law’, in an attempt to convince the population that it was his policies and actions that brought increased law and order to Iraq.   On the campaign trail al-Maliki stressed the success of the military campaigns in Basra and his decision to send troops into the Sadr City area of Baghdad.  He emphasised his role in challenging the Kurdish Regional Government’s expansionist policies along its boundary with the rest of Iraq.  In a key campaign speech he set himself against the decentralised federal agenda of his main rivals for the Shia vote, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and their partners within the coalition government, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.  The popular chord this approach struck with a population that had until recently been mired in a sectarian civil war was reflected in the fact that al Maliki’s coalition won the largest slice of the popular vote in nine out of the 14 participating provinces.

Al-Maliki attempted to reproduce this vote winning formula in the March 2010 national elections.  He hoped to capitalise once again on his popularity across the south and centre of the country and on his claim to have been responsible for the drop in inter-communal violence since 2007.  However, unlike in the previous 2005 national elections, the Prime Minister refused to join a sectarian coalition that sought to maximise the Shia vote and instead chose to run on a State of Law platform.  

The major issue that dominated the national election campaign involved the Justice and Accountability Commission, the government agency charged with implementing the de-Ba’athification process set in train by the Americans.   On 7 January 2010, the commission, chaired by former American favourite Ahmed Chalabi, issued edicts seeking to ban 511 individual candidates and 14 party lists from the elections. Those advocating and backing the mass exclusion of candidates from the election must have known that, at the very least, doing so would inflame sectarian tensions and run the risk of encouraging politically motivated violence. In the aftermath of the bans, the ‘Ba’athist threat’ became a key plank of al-Maliki’s election campaign. When faced with a cynical electorate alienated by his government’s continued inability to deliver jobs and services, al-Maliki chose to conjure up the spectre of Ba’athism, once again playing to sectarian sentiment in order to solidify his vote.  

Ironically, although this approach may have played a role in solidifying al-Maliki’s core constituency it also drove Sunni’s to the ballot box in retaliation.  This mobilisation of Sunni voters in Baghdad and across the north west greatly favoured Iyad Allawi’s Iraqiyya coalition, giving them 2,851,823 votes and 91 seats in the new parliament.  Nuri al Maliki’s State of Law coalition came second with 2,797,624 votes and 89 seats.  With 163 seats needed for an overall majority neither of the two leading groups gained enough votes for an outright victory.  That left the Iraqi National Alliance who came third with 70 seats, and the Kurdish Alliance with 43 seats, holding the balance of power.  

In the aftermath of the vote, al-Maliki’s increasingly authoritarian behaviour became obvious when he was faced with a potential electoral defeat.  ‘No way we will accept the results’, he bluntly stated, demanding a recount in order to prevent a ‘return to violence’.  The potentially sinister implications of this statement were exacerbated by the fact that he issued it in his role as head of the country’s armed forces. In mid-May 2010, after the recount, the electoral commission, backed up by the United Nations, announced that it had found no evidence of fraud and the vote and seat allocation remained unchanged. 

Negotiations to form a government in the aftermath of the elections stretched from March to November 2010.  They were shaped by two opposing fears: on one hand, that al-Maliki’s growing power would lead to dictatorship if he were reappointed; but on the other, that an increase in the influence of the Sunni population in a potential Allawi government could lead to the unravelling of the political settlement that was reached in the years after the 2003 invasion.

The final breakthrough came on 11 November, 2010, 249 days after the election.  Al-Maliki managed to use the threat of Allawi and his Sunni voters to impose a rough and ready unity of the Kurdish and Shia parties, who had a great deal to lose from an Allawi premiership. Masoud Barazani, the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and President of the Kurdish Regional Government, chaired three days of negotiations to bring Allawi and Iraqiyya into a government of national unity. During these negotiations, key members of Allawi’s Iraqiyya coalition, Saleh al-Mutlaq and Osama al-Nujaifi, opened up separate discussions with al-Maliki. After securing positions for themselves in the new government – Deputy Prime Minister and Speaker of the Parliament, respectively – they strong-armed Allawi into accepting a formal deal by threatening to split Iraqiyya if he rejected it. 

Justifications of the resulting deal, later named the ‘Irbil Agreement’, focused on al-Maliki signing a 15-point pledge designed to specifically limit his power. Concessions were meant to include the hand over of the counter-terrorism forces to the Ministry of Defence and strengthening chains of command over the army and police force. The centrepiece of the agreement was the formation of a National Council for Strategic Policy that Iyad Allawi would chair. All major policy decisions would be sent to this council for approval before they were enacted by parliament. 

Unfortunately, when the new government finally coalesced, it constituted a political triumph for al-Maliki. In spite of coming second in the elections he retained the premiership, skilfully escaped all attempts to constrain his power and inserted a number of loyalists to important cabinet positions. He consistently outmanoeuvred Allawi and Iraqiyya, who failed to secure the prime ministership, the presidency or any of the top positions in the three security ministries – interior, defence or national security – which Maliki either runs himself or has given to loyalists. 

The ramifications of circumventing the Irbil Agreement meant no meaningful constraints were placed on al-Maliki’s grip on power. He did not relinquish control of Iraq’s anti-terrorism forces, the National Council for Strategic Policy was not established and the Kurdish Regional Government’s 19 demands on al- Maliki were not met. By waiting out his adversaries, dividing the parties that opposed him and bribing individual politicians with jobs they coveted, al-Maliki has, if anything, tightened his control over the Iraqi state and its security forces.  After the elections of 2010, the December crisis of 2011 marks the next step in his consolidation of authoritarian power

Conclusions; back to the future? 

As things stand, the trajectory of Iraqi politics is clearly heading towards a new authoritarianism with the concentration of power in the hands of one man, Nuri al-Maliki.  The key question for the long-suffering Iraqi population who have seen at least 115,485 people die violent deaths since the invasion and indeed for the United States who invested billions of dollars in removing Saddam Hussein and reshaping Iraqi politics, is why did this happen?  

After disbanding the Iraqi army in May 2003, the US government, realising its mistake and faced with a rising tide of politically motivated violence, embarked on a rapid remilitarisation of the Iraqi state’s relations with its own society. From April 2003 onwards, the US spent $19 billion – matched by $16.6bn from the Iraqi government – in an attempt to train, equip and pay the new Iraqi armed forces. The Iraqi Ministry of Defence’s budget rose by a yearly average of 28 percent from 2005 to 2009.[7]  So, to all intents and purposes, when faced with a rising tide of violence, largely caused by their own policy mistakes, the US occupation embarked on the reconstitution of an Iraqi military.  The resultant Iraqi security forces, under the control of Nuri al-Maliki, are today on their way to occupying the same role as the armed forces of the Ba’athist regime. 


U.S. President George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki

Sgt. 1st Class Bryan Beach. All rights reserved

The US government’s justification for the rapid re-militarisation of Iraq would focus on the ‘democratic oversight’ established to constrain the use of state sanctioned coercion.  Officially, the command and control of the Iraqi security forces was centred on the Iraqi Joint Forces Command, which was subservient to the National Operations Centre in Baghdad and overseen by the Minister of Defence.  However, in truth, the rapid remilitarisation of the Iraqi state’s relations with its own society was pushed through by the US in an attempt to limit their own casualties and hence reduce the domestic political cost of occupying Iraq.  The speed with which this was done and the massive investment channeled into Iraq’s security forces left the country, once again dominated by a huge military machine.  After 2006, the control of this machine to guarantee his own survival became the overbearing strategic aim of Nuri al-Maliki.  By the time US forces finally left Iraq in December 2011, he had achieved that aim.  Iraq today has a set of over-developed coercive institutions increasingly placed at the service of one man, its Prime Minister.  The clear and present danger this poses to Iraq’s nascent democracy, its civil society and its population is obvious.

[1] ‘Inside Iraq’, 31st December, 2011, http://blogs.mcclatchydc.com/iraq/

[2] Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, ‘Corruption in Iraq: “Your son is being tortured. He will die if you don’t pay,”’ The Guardian, 16 January, 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jan/16/corruption-iraq-son-tortured-pay 

[3] Roy Gutman, ‘Iraqi VP denies terror charges as sectarian dispute continues,’ McClathy Newspapers, 20 December, 2011, http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2011/12/20/133693/iraqi-vp-denies-terror-charges.html 

[4] Mustafa Habib, ‘Niqash interview with Iraqi Vice President: US withdrawal “nothing to worry about”’, 13 December, 2011, http://www.niqash.org/articles/?id=2953 

[5] Nir Rosen,‘Iraq’s fragile peace rests on its own forces’, The Nation, (10 September, 2010), http://thenational.ae/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100910/REVIEW/709099998/1008

[6] International Crisis Group, ‘Loose ends: Iraq’s security forces between US drawdown and withdrawal’, Middle East Report No. 99 (26 October 2010),


[7] Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, Quarterly Report to the United States Congress, 30 October, 2010, http://www.sigir.mil/files/quarterlyreports/October2010/Report_-_October_2010.pdf#view=fit


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