A flurry of media reports has pointed to a supposedly eroding support base for Iraq’s premier Nouri al-Maliki.
For example, an Associated Press piece last week entitled “Al-Maliki Quickly Losing Trust in Iraq” characterized the “root” of the current “stand-off” in Iraqi politics as the “unresolved power struggle between Iraq’s three main groups: the majority Shiites and minority Sunnis and Kurds.”
The AP report added that “Al-Maliki, a Shiite, is under fire for breaking promises to share power with his partners in a unity government that includes the Sunni-dominated Iraqiya bloc, Kurdish parties and loyalists of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr.’
What the AP report and other news organizations have in mind is the current talk of a no-confidence vote against the premier. The MPs who are raising this prospect include members of Iraqiya — led by Maliki’s rival Ayad Allawi and featuring the Speaker of the Parliament Osama al-Nujaifi — Massoud Barzani and Muqtada al-Sadr, both of whom are allies in Maliki’s coalition.
On this basis, al-Arabiya writer Musa Keilani declared that Maliki “is facing an alliance of four major political blocs in a confrontation that could bring down his government and produce a new interim prime minister.”
However, these reports are generally based on sensationalist narratives, and in the case of the AP, there is too much focus on the sectarian paradigm. None of this is to deny that the four aforementioned figures in Iraqi politics have publicly criticized the prime minister and are toying with the idea of a no-confidence vote, but the evidence suggests that Maliki is likely to emerge from this crisis unscathed.
To begin with, the media reports overlook internal divisions within the factions of Maliki’s opponents. In particular, Iraqiya can only be called a political bloc in the loosest sense of the word. It is a coalition that is torn by infighting, with constant reports of defections and splits, something that was partly the reason behind the bloc’s eventual decision at the end of January to end its boycott of the parliament.
In addition, certain key members of Iraqiya such as the deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, who in December issued overblown statements comparing Maliki to Saddam, have effectively reconciled with Maliki.
This is not to say that the concerns over Maliki’s behavior raised by members of the opposition are not justified. One can point to many signs of monopolization of power in the premier’s hands. For example, he is still maintaining his hold on the positions of defense and interior ministers that should have been granted to Allawi’s bloc as per the Arbil agreement forged by Barzani. Further, as Judith S. Yaphe points out, “As the U.S. military, in particular the U.S. Special Forces, transferred responsibility to their Iraqi counterparts, Maliki created several special brigades within the army as counter-terrorism brigades and moved them out of the defense ministry to report directly to him.” None of this, however, makes Maliki the equivalent of Saddam.
Amid the talk of a no-confidence vote, Al-Sumaria News reported that several MPs from Iraqiya came out in support of the premier, including Ibrahim al-Muhairi — an Arab MP from Kirkuk — and Yassin al-Obeidi, also from Kirkuk. Meanwhile, the Iraqiya Hurra bloc, which in April split from the White Iraqi National Movement (a bloc that defected from Iraqiya last year), has urged lawmakers from Ninawa, Salah ad-Din, and Diyala, among other places, to reject a no-confidence vote against the premier.
This Sunni Arab and Iraqiya support for Maliki — undermining the AP’s obsession with sectarianism — exists for two reasons. First, these backers appreciate Maliki’s stance on dealing with the Kurds, towards whom Maliki has adopted a delicate and careful carrot-and-stick approach.
While the premier has made a number of concessions (e.g. allowing the Peshmerga to annex the disputed Khanaqin district in Diyala province last year), he is also perceived to have taken tough stances on issues like Kirkuk and what is considered to be illegal exportation of oil by the Kurdistan Regional Government, such that he is seen by many Shi’a and Sunni Arabs as someone who will preserve Iraq’s territorial integrity. This was the rationale given by the Iraqiya MPs who signed a statement in support of maintaining Maliki’s position as premier.
Second, there is growing frustration among Iraqiya members with Allawi, who spends much of his time abroad and is detached not only from the situation on the ground but also from ordinary members and supporters of his own bloc.
As for Muqtada al-Sadr, it is certainly true that he has made numerous fiery statements against the premier, declaring in Najaf that the move to withdraw confidence from Maliki’s government is an act of “divine will.”
However, as is the case with Iraqiya, members of the Sadrist movement have come out in support of Maliki. This includes Grand Ayatollah Kazem al-Haeri, who, viewed as a spiritual leader by many Sadrists, issued a fatwa against voting for secular candidates and implicitly forbidding withdrawal of support for Maliki.
Interestingly, Sadr rejected this fatwa, and according to sources in Najaf and sheikhs in the Sadrist movement interviewed by al-Hayat, he would only accept such a fatwa from Grand Ayatollah Sistani or Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Ishaq al-Fayad (who, like Sistani, opposes Khomeini’s doctrine of velayat-e-faqih), since he views both clergymen as voices for Iraq, not foreign powers.
This point tells against Nimrod Raphaeli’s view that Sadr is simply “Iran’s mouthpiece in Iraq.” The cleric’s ties to Iran notwithstanding, it is more accurate to describe Sadr as a wildcard, whose primary concern is contesting for a position of leadership of the Shi’a political factions in Iraq. What stance Sadr will eventually take is difficult to tell, as reports have already emerged of an upcoming meeting between Maliki and Sadr as regards the political process.
Yet more generally, the Sadrists are likely to end up backing Maliki, for not only are they too distant from Iraqiya to cement any sort of alliance to establish a government, but the premier has also granted positions to Sadrists in the ministries of housing and planning, which has allowed the movement to expand its support network.
As for the Kurds, it is clear that Barzani’s stance against Maliki is not the consensus among the Kurdish parties. Talabani — the president of Iraq and the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) — is firmly opposed to any withdrawal of support from Maliki, as Kurdish MP Mahmoud Othman recently confirmed.
This is partly rooted in the fact that Maliki has granted significant concessions to the Kurds, as noted above. On the other hand, it is also fair to say that many of the outstanding issues between Baghdad and Arbil have yet to be dealt with, above all the question of Kirkuk’s status, which Maliki’s side has not yet shown any real intention of resolving. This makes for a valid concern for those on the Kurdish side who are frustrated with Maliki.
In any case, the lack of unity among any opposition to Maliki means that there is unlikely to be an absolute majority no-confidence vote in the Council of Representatives (the Iraqi parliament, with 163 votes required) now or even until the next elections in 2014.
Talabani is a key figure to keep in mind regarding any unseating of the premier. Since he has now made it clear that he will not submit a request to the Council of Representatives to withdraw confidence from the Prime Minister, it follows, as Reidar Visser has also noted, that the only option remaining for those who wish to get rid of Maliki is to request for the Prime Minister to be summoned for an inquiry (see Article 61, Section 8 B2 of the Iraqi constitution).
Only one-fifth of the Council of Representatives is required to submit a request, but the actual inquiry is a murkier area. Visser further draws attention to the fact that the Iraqi Supreme Court recently ruled that an inquiry involving a government minister must pertain to a “specific criminal charge or constitutional infraction.”
General charges along the lines of corruption, which is endemic in Iraq anyway, will probably get nowhere. The question of federalism — raised last year after some provincial councils in predominantly Sunni areas declared autonomy — is also problematic: both sides — the central government and the provincial councils — had little understanding of observing the constitution.
In sum, Maliki’s position as premier will remain safe. The disputes discussed here are likely to persist for at least many months to come. In truth, therefore, the attempts to initiate a no-confidence vote against Maliki are little more than a waste of time.
Instead of offering constructive criticism and trying to reach an accord with the premier, numerous members of the opposition– in particular Ayad Allawi and other senior figures in Iraqiya — have developed an obsession with attacking Maliki, which distracts from more serious problems such as corruption, over-dependence on oil revenues, excessive bureaucracy, reasoned criticism of monopolization of power by the central government, and poor public services.
One would hardly be unjustified in concluding that Maliki has been better suited than Allawi for the role of Prime Minister all along.