An Iraqi Don Quixote
The Iraqi prime minister was once a novice politician who rose to national prominence only to lead his country into tilting at windmills, writes Salah Nasrawi
]In the eight years since he took the post of Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Al-Maliki has won a reputation for concentrating power in his hands in a country that prides itself on being pluralistic, federal and democratic.
Al-Maliki’s autocratic leadership style has drawn the wrath of both his foes and his allies and raised fears that Iraq’s Shia prime minister is becoming another edition of its former dictator Saddam Hussein.
As Iraq prepares for crucial elections next month, many Iraqis believe that Al-Maliki is rallying the country’s Shias behind his tough policy against the Sunni Arabs and ethnic Kurds in his bid to win a third term.
Observers believe that his re-election may deepen Iraq’s communal divisions and push the terror-torn and ethnically and sectarian divided country to the brink of collapse.
In what was perceived by his rivals as being a constitutional coup d’état Al-Maliki last week declared the parliament to be “finished” and accused its Sunni Arab speaker, Osama Al-Nujaifi, of conspiring to topple the Shia-led government.
He also defied the parliament and decided to go on spending from the state coffers despite a standoff over a controversial draft 2014 budget that the assembly has not yet ratified.
Al-Maliki’s harsh rhetoric and the anger and disdain he has displayed towards the parliament come as Iraq remains gridlocked by a political crisis that has paralysed the central government amid a surge in sectarian violence.
Since December, Iraq’s army and security forces have been pitted in fierce fighting with Sunni insurgents in the Anbar province. The troops’ failure to regain control of the city of Fallujah and many parts of the province reflects Al-Maliki’s incompetence as the commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces.
The fight now threatens to spread into other Sunni provinces and to derail the 30 April elections.
Sunni Arabs have been protesting against what they consider to be their marginalisation and exclusion by Al-Maliki and have boycotted the government and occasionally the parliament.
The Kurds meanwhile have also been protesting in order to press their demands for greater autonomy and a larger say in national decision-making.
Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani has repeatedly warned that the autonomous Kurdistan Region will seek full independence if Al-Maliki persists in “breaking the pride and dignity of the Kurds.”
Shia leaders, nominally the prime minister’s allies, have not been less dismayed by Al-Maliki’s authoritarian style, and many of them have been voicing frustration with his attempts to increase his prestige at the expense of restoring normality to the country.
While disenchantment with Al-Maliki is growing, so too is the danger that the Iraqi state may not hold together.
Al-Maliki first came to power in 2006 after a prolonged crisis over selecting a prime minister. He was an accidental choice after Shia leaders failed to agree on a candidate who would not be vetoed by the Kurds and Sunnis.
Al-Maliki has remained in the post since then despite his failure to solve a lingering government crisis, curb escalating violence, end rampant corruption and make significant changes in the living conditions of a population fatigued by decades of dictatorship, military conflict, international sanctions and foreign occupation.
His lack of executive experience, solid political background, statesmanship skills and visionary leadership have been visible in his mismanagement of the government and the animosities he has created with most of the key political factions.
The official government Website does not carry a biography of Al-Maliki, but several other sites provide profiles of him based on information gathered from various sources.
According to these sites, Al-Maliki was born near the Iraqi Shia holy city of Kerbela in 1950. He joined the underground Shia Islamic Dawa Party in the 1970s, attended a religious college founded by Shia clergy and later worked as a clerk in the local department of the Ministry of Education in Hillah.
Al-Maliki escaped Iraq in 1979 following a crackdown by Saddam on the Dawa Party, which was accused of being involved in subversive activities.
After spending some time in Syria he travelled to Iran where he joined other anti-Saddam dissidents who were fighting alongside the Iranians in the 1980-1988 Gulf War.
Two years after the War ended Al-Maliki returned to Syria where he spent the next 23 years under the protection of the intelligence forces of the regime of Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad and later of his son Bashar.
He lived under the nom de guerre of Jawad Al-Maliki near the Shia holy shrine of Sayeda Zeinab outside Damascus among thousands of Iraqi exiles who were resisting Saddam or seeking asylum in foreign countries.
After the US-led invasion of Iraq that ended Saddam’s regime in April 2003, Al-Maliki returned to Iraq as a scramble for power began among Saddam’s former opponents under the umbrella of American power.
The Dawa Party, probably influenced by Syria, had first opposed the US-led invasion, but it soon joined the American-installed Interim Governing Council and other government institutions with Al-Maliki among its principal leaders.
He was named vice president of a commission charged with eliminating Saddam loyalists from the government, army and security forces. In 2005, he became a member of the security committee of the provisional parliament.
Al-Maliki won a seat in the post-Saddam parliament’s first elections later that year when he was chosen as prime minister after the leader of the Dawa Party, Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, was forced out of the race.
But it was largely the pressure exercised by the US Bush administration to end the government deadlock that forced the Shia groups to go for Al-Maliki.
Iraqi political leaders recall how Condoleezza Rice, then the US secretary of state, lobbied and pressured them to support Al-Maliki for the post.
As prime minister, Al-Maliki has sought to project himself as a strong leader at a time of trouble in Iraq. In 2006, he authorised the execution of Saddam and targeted Al-Qaeda-affiliated Sunni insurgents.
A year later, he led a military campaign against Shia militias loyal to the radical cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, forcing him to disband his notorious Al-Mahdi militia.
Al-Maliki also negotiated a deal that allowed Washington to withdraw its troop presence from the country and end the US military occupation of Iraq in December 2011.
In 2010, he won a second term in office after forming a national unity government with other Shias, Kurds and Sunnis.
All this would seem to be cause for celebration among some of his followers who see him as a Shia hero. Yet, the mood among most Iraqis has been anything but celebratory.
Indeed, Al-Maliki’s rule has come to be viewed as a disastrous failure for Iraq, and the last eight years have been catastrophic for its people.
Just days after the last US soldiers left the country, the fragile national unity government began to unravel as Al-Maliki moved against two senior Sunni politicians on terror-related charges.
The government soon became incapable of resolving key issues, such as power and wealth-sharing.
Opponents of the Iraqi leader say that after Al-Maliki was named prime minister for a second term in 2010, Iraqi politics started taking an avowedly sectarian turn with power being concentrated in the hands of his Shia-dominated government.
Al-Maliki, who had been controlling the army, security forces, the election commission, the anti-corruption body and the state-owned media agency, now started developing autocratic habits, and even his closest allies began comparing him with Saddam.
He has also been blamed for using the judiciary to cow his opponents.
For many Iraqis, Al-Maliki is a living clone of Miguel de Cervantes’s famous character Don Quixote. Like the delusional anti-hero of the Spanish author, Al-Maliki is tilting at his own version of windmills.
However, the question now is how long Al-Maliki can maintain his survival skills before he realises that Iraq can no longer be tamed by a strong man.
In 2010, Al-Maliki travelled to Qom in Iran where Al-Sadr was receiving his religious education in order to seek his cooperation to form a government. It needed another trip to Erbil to appease Barzani and make the Kurdish leader facilitate the formation of the government.
As the new elections approach, Al-Maliki will show if he is a real strong man or whether he is playing for time and gambling on his opponents’ weaknesses.
“He will do it again once the 2014 elections are over. This time he will travel to Mosul too to beg Al-Nujaifi,” said Amir Al-Kinani of the Sadrist Movement in an interview with a local media outlet.