Iran: Maliki in Tehran: A desperate search for support
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s current visit to Iran, his first since he began his second term in office, is officially being billed as an opportunity to consult with his hosts about regional developments and to sign a number of bilateral cooperation agreements.
But it is an open secret that Maliki’s real purpose is to solicit the political support of Iranian leaders and their help in extricating him from the many domestic crises that he has brought upon the country. His burdens have never been greater and his position never weaker. Maliki’s behavior has provoked such antagonism that Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani was prompted to openly threaten secession – and in Turkey, of all places, whose generals have long vowed to snuff out any Kurdish state that is ever proclaimed anywhere.
Nobody understands why Maliki has allowed things to deteriorate so badly in Iraq. This state of affairs has come about despite his successful handling of foreign policy. He is credited with having managed to place the country firmly in the resistance camp and stand up to the world’s sole superpower, as illustrated by his joint news conference with US President Barack Obama in Washington in December.
If Maliki’s behavior at home stems from not knowing what is going around him, this is a disaster. But if he does know, and yet continues to act as he has been doing, this is an even greater disaster.
How can one explain the transformation of the man who, two years ago was recognized by all regional and international parties as the indispensable key figure in Iraq, into the harbinger of ruin for the country and its Shias? This is how he is now seen in political circles in a variety of capitals, where the search is on for possible replacements.
How could Maliki also have turned so quickly from an asset for his regional allies – who greatly appreciated his resolve and adherence to his courageous stands – into a liability?
Moreover, how did Maliki, two years after extricating himself from a regional and domestic noose that was being drawn around his neck, manage to get all the players concerned to join forces against him once again – including some who had defected to his side?
Even Maliki’s loyalists concede that he has blundered badly and gravely weakened his position, though they tend to blame his advisors. There are stirrings within his own Daawa party too, as proven by a recent bid to get the position of party leader separated from that of prime minister.
Maliki has much to do if he is to overcome the challenges facing him and regain his political clout. He needs to rebuild bridges with the Kurds, which will entail squaring some circles making some compromises. He must reach out to the Sunnis and lure back some of the Sunni leaders he has alienated, especially Council of Representatives Speaker Usama al-Nujayfi and Deputy Premier Saleh al-Mutlak, who bent over backwards to be conciliatory but to no avail. He also needs to reunite the Shia camp, by urgently reconciling with the Supreme Islamic Council (SIC) and recommitting to understandings with the Sadrists. This also entails winning back the approval of the Shia religious leadership, which has rebuked him.
All of this is essential if Maliki is to safeguard not only his own position, but the country as a whole, from the neighboring states that have incessantly been conspiring against both. But can he achieve it? Nobody watching his behavior in recent weeks and months would be able to confidently reply in the affirmative.
The most striking example, perhaps, is the way Maliki tried to turn disagreements with Barzani from a political dispute into a personal vendetta with the president of the KRG. It would be inconceivable for the leader of any country to denigrate the dreams of a major section of its population the way Maliki did the Kurds. This has made the problem between the two sides go beyond the issues of oil and Kirkuk. Maliki affronted Barzani and challenged his authority. He also forced President Jalal Talabani into the fray despite his professed impartiality, thus depriving the Kurds of their ability to make gains by playing other rivals off against each other. Even more troubling to the Kurds was the knowledge that Maliki turned on them just after the departure of their protector, the US military.
This may have been what prompted Barzani to travel to Washington a couple of weeks ago to ask for support in getting Kurdish demands met and Maliki thrown out of office.
The Kurdish leader’s aides say the visit was a great success from his point of view. They maintain that Barzani secured Obama’s support for Kurdish demands, albeit within a united Iraq, and also for toppling Maliki, but by “constitutional means.”
Maliki’s people, however, insist the visit was a dismal failure. They say Obama stressed his commitment to a united Iraq by rejecting the Kurdish demands which smack of a separatist agenda – including over Kirkuk and the oil issue – and urged Barzani to await the next elections in 2014 for a chance to bring Maliki down, hence the reference to “constitutional means.”
Whatever the case, Barzani has begun weaving alliances with Sunni and Shia politicians – with the backing of regional players led by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey – with the aim of mustering the simple parliamentary majority needed to win a no-confidence vote against Maliki and get him replaced.
During negotiations on the formation of the current government of national unity in 2010, Barzani got Maliki to sign the Erbil Agreement, under which he endorsed a list of 19 demands the Kurds made to the central government, and pledged to comply with them once in office. This agreement met with the same fate as the coalition agreement Maliki struck with Iyad Allawi’s al-Iraqiyya bloc, in which, among other things, he promised to govern by consensus and create a top-level post for Allawi. Whenever Maliki is reminded of either of these, his routine reply is to stress his commitment to the constitution and his willingness to implement any agreement, provided it does not conflict with it.
Maliki’s behavior is partly conditioned by Allawi’s. The latter has reportedly pledged at high-level meetings to do his utmost to get Barzani to wage all-out war on Maliki. He has also declared that he will not return to Baghdad before the prime minister is ousted, claiming to have uncovered a plot to assassinate him. Allawi insists there can be no end to the crisis without three demands being met: the implementation of the Erbil Agreement, Maliki being replaced by someone else chosen by his own parliamentary bloc, and early general elections to decide who should run the country.
Maliki’s relationship with the Sunnis is equally poor, including political leaders like Mutlak whose calls for reconciliation have been falling on deaf ears for months. Worse still was his treatment of al-Nujayfi. Encouraged by mediators, the parliamentary speaker telephoned Maliki recently in an attempt to break the ice between them. For his efforts he was treated to a stream of abuse, coupled with the threat “I will destroy you,” before he hung up. This kind of behavior has prompted some of the Sunni politicians who defected from al-Iraqiyya to Maliki’s camp to return to its fold.
Within Shia ranks, meanwhile, it has become clear that Maliki is being challenged by two main groups.
The SIC has begun, since early this month, openly saying that it wants Maliki removed. It even held a meeting with a delegation from al-Iraqiyya to coordinate efforts. The SIC is still smarting from unresolved disputes during the time of the elections. Maliki is said to view SIC leader Ammar al-Hakim as an arch-foe, and wants to make him pay for having tried to prevent him retaining the premiership. The SIC has been close to the Kurds since the days of its founder, Mohsen al-Hakim, and has always maintained ties with al-Iraqiyya and its regional sponsors. It has effectively become part of the Kurdish-Sunni bloc that aims at removing Maliki.
The second challenge comes from the Sadrists, who, as usual, have been employing a policy of extortion to maximize their gains. They have been discreetly touting possible replacements for Maliki from within their own ranks, with encouragement from some of the prime minister’s opponents. At least two prominent Sadrist figures have been in contact with regional players in this regard. Sources close to the Sadrist movement are convinced that it would have joined the anti-Maliki camp were it not for its acute mistrust of the SIC.
That leaves other fences to be mended: with the Shia clerical leadership. It was forced to intervene recently, via its representatives, to protect Iraqi Central Bank Governor Sinan al-Shabibi from Maliki’s attempts to sack him. Shabibi is a highly regarded professional, but Maliki turned on him after a dispute which began when the prime minister sought to borrow money from the national reserve to fund government expenditure.
When Shabibi refused, for practical and legal reasons, Maliki accused him of conspiring against him, and blamed him for a variety of failings unrelated to the central bank governor’s job. He went to such extremes that the clerical leadership felt impelled to intercede by expressing its confidence in Shabibi and the upholding the central bank’s independence. A variety of Iraqi political leaders did likewise, including Nujayfi who received Shabibi on 8 April. Parliament later sent a letter to Maliki stressing the need for the central bank to remain independent.
Maliki’s attack on Shabibi is seen as part of a broader effort by the prime minister to assume control over all independent state bodies and bring them under the authority of his office.
With Syria preoccupied with its internal crisis; Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey backing the Iraqi Sunnis, Kurds, and SIC; and with the Sadrists scheming and rivals emerging within his own party, Maliki knows he has only one place to turn to. Only Tehran can keep him in power. The parliamentary majority needed to oust him is in place. All it requires is an Iranian green light, without which none of the Shia players are likely to take any action.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.