Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki arrives in Tehran for a meeting with former Iranian president Rafsanjani, on December 5, 2013.

Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki arrives in Tehran for a meeting with former Iranian president Rafsanjani, on December 5, 2013. Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

Intimidation, Cronyism, Repression: The Unfortunate Legacy of Iraq's Nouri al-Maliki

Maliki’s personal history shaped his winner-take-all view of Iraqi politics. Years of bloody civil war followed immediately by the Arab Spring have only made matters worse. By Mohamad Bazzi

There are many factors underlying last week’s spectacular collapse of the Iraqi security forces and the quick sweep of Sunni militants through Mosul and other parts of northern Iraq. The militants, led by fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), took advantage of the vacuum created by the civil war in Syria; financing from individual donors and tacit support from some officials in the Gulf Arab states; growing resentment among Iraq’s Sunni minority against the Shiite-led government in Baghdad; and the failure of Iraqi leaders to create a functional political system.

But it’s prime minister Nuri al-Maliki who bears the greatest blame for the catastrophe unfolding in Iraq today. Since he took office in 2006, and especially since his reelection in 2010, Maliki has become increasingly repressive and authoritarian. He has used the Iraqi security forces to suppress opponents and intimidate his political rivals, installing his cronies in key security posts. He has shown little willingness to make the compromises necessary to lead an inclusive government, and to ease a new wave of sectarian bloodletting. He has failed to follow through on power-sharing agreements, refused to include prominent Sunni leaders in his government, and strained relations with the semi-autonomous Kurdish region over oil-revenue sharing deals.

When peaceful protests broke out in 2012, led by Sunni tribal leaders frustrated by Maliki’s policies, he responded with a crackdown: an armed assault on protest camps in Anbar province and mass arrests of Sunnis. Maliki managed to alienate Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds, and empowered the Sunni militias and extremists now threatening to take over.

And now, contrary to previous promises not to seek a third term, this most divisive of leaders is positioning himself to do just that. A month ago, even as ISIL was amassing forces near the Iraqi-Syrian border to launch its assault on Mosul, preliminary results from Iraq’s April 30 parliamentary election showed that Maliki’s coalition had won the largest bloc. “It is clear the people didn’t vote only for Maliki, but they also voted for a third term, so the political parties must not stand against the will of the people,” Maliki’s spokesman said on May 19 (paywall).

Maliki’s forces may yet beat back the militants; on June 19, the army was claiming to have repulsednbsp;ISIL’s two-day-long assault on Baiji, Iraq’s largest oil refinery. But a third term for a leader as divisive and sectarian as Maliki would be disastrous for Iraq.

A leadership born of distrust

In many ways, Maliki’s personal history shaped his view of politics as a winner-take-all struggle. He was an activist in the Dawa Party, a Shiite Islamist group outlawed and hunted by Saddam Hussein’s regime. Maliki fled Iraq in 1979, and lived in exile for 24 years, mostly in Syria and Iran. He became used to the secrecy and isolation of life as a dissident, ever fearful of assassination by Hussein’s secret police. It also made him dependent on support from two governments that used exiles like him as bargaining chips in their battle against Hussein’s regime. He didn’t like being at the mercy of others.

When the United States invaded in 2003, Shiites made up nearly two-thirds of Iraq’s population of 25 million. But members of the Sunni minority had ruled Iraq since its independence in 1932. Having waited seven decades for a chance to rule, it was not surprising that the Shiites would consolidate power after the American invasion. But Maliki, who was first appointed as a compromise prime minister in 2006 with US support, has manipulated a dysfunctional political system put in place by the US and UN to concentrate power and exclude Sunnis.

At first, admittedly, he was beholden to the Shiite coalition that brought him into office. But after the last parliamentary election in 2010, Maliki had a chance to strike a deal with Iyad Allawi, the  secular Shiite leader who served as Iraq’s first prime minister after the US invasion, and whose coalition won the most seats in 2010 and attracted the support of many Sunni Arabs.

Instead, Maliki worked to outmaneuver Allawi. It took nine months of political deadlock, proxy battles, and foreign interference from Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia before a government could be formed. Maliki eventually secured a second term only after Iran strong-armed two fellow Shiite leaders, the clerics Ammar al-Hakim and Muqtada al-Sadr, into supporting him.

After his second term began, Maliki’s strongman tendencies became more pronounced. As well as prime minister, he served as acting defense, interior and national security minister. After US troops withdrew from Iraq in December 2011, Maliki ordered Iraqi security forces to arrest the vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni leader with whom he had clashed. Hashimi was accused of orchestrating bombings and running hit squads that targeted Shiite politicians. He fled to the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq. Maliki used similar tactics to silence other political opponents.

The third term U-turn

The popular protests that swept the Arab world in early 2011 got Maliki worried about an uprising at home. He pledged on Iraqi state TV not to seek a third term in 2014. He also promised to change the Iraqi constitution to impose a two-term limit on future prime ministers. “Eight years is enough for him, in order to not convert to a dictatorship,” Maliki’s media adviser, Ali al-Musawi, told The Associated Press in February 2011. “This is the principle and the concept of democracy.”

As has now become clear, Maliki was either lying at the time, or changed his mind after the Arab Spring, and with it the threat to his power, subsided.

As Iraq’s leaders argued over sharing power and the country’s oil wealth, violence escalated once again in 2013. (The UN reported that more than 7,800 civilians and 1,000 members of the security forces were killed in violent attacks across Iraq in 2013—the highest death toll in five years.) Militants affiliated with Al Qaeda exploited the political paralysis and destabilized the country. The civil war in Syria spilled over into Iraq, with Sunni jihadists joining the fight against Bashar al-Assad’s government and Shiite militants supporting the Assad regime. In January, fighters from ISIL seized large swaths of the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. That prompted Maliki to deploy Iraqi security forces across Anbar province, where they have shelled villages and carried out mass arrests of Sunnis, all in the name of fighting terrorism.

The strong hand of Iran

The Iraqi electoral system is doomed to virtual gridlock in parliament and across the government. The main ethnic and sectarian blocs—Sunni Arab, Shiite and Kurdish—are each split into sub-factions; 276 parties took part in April’s election. Maliki’s Shiite Islamist coalition won 92 of the 328 seats in the legislature, the largest single share and three times as many as any other bloc.

The easiest way for Maliki to build the 165-seat coalition needed for a government would be to ally with other Shiite parties, and possibly Kurdish factions. Hakim and Sadr, who helped get him into power last time, control 63 seats in the new parliament, and while they both deeply dislike Maliki for his autocratic tendencies, they are beholden to Iran and could be pressured once again to support Maliki.

But that would be repeating the mistakes of the past—the exclusion of Sunnis from Iraqi political life that helped fuel the civil war during the American occupation.

Today, Maliki fears that his political opponents want to undermine his authority and weaken his central government in Baghdad. He sees betrayal and conspiracies everywhere. Several of his Sunni rivals, including Atheel al-Nujaifi, the governor of Mosul, and his brother Usama al-Nujaifi, the outgoing speaker of parliament, claim they tried to warn Maliki that Mosul was in danger of falling to ISIL and Baathist militant groups. Maliki accused them of betrayal.

As Maliki has struggled to remain in office, he has become more dependent on Iran, which is the dominant external power in Iraq. Maliki is a reliable ally who allows Iranian flights over Iraqi territory to transport weapons and manpower to Assad’s regime in Syria. (US officials have tried for years to pressure Maliki to stop the Iranian overflights, with little result.) He also paved the way for thousands of Iraqi Shiites to cross the border and fight alongside the Syrian regime.

Already, Iran is mobilizing to protect Maliki’s government from the growing Sunni militant threat. General Qassim Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, traveled to Baghdad last week, where he met with Iraqi politicians and military officers. He also met with Iranian-trained Shiite militia commanders, whose fighters are often enmeshed within the Iraqi security forces. Several Maliki aides warned last week that if the United States does not provide military assistance, they would have no choice but to ask Iran for more help.

The need for US action

Any US military aid should come with strings attached—mainly that Maliki must commit to a national unity government that includes Sunnis and Kurds. Better yet, the Obama administration should do whatever it can to push Maliki out of power. (Officials have recently been signaling that it wants him out.) That won’t be easy because of Maliki’s strong showing in the recent parliamentary election and because the various Iraqi factions have not been able to agree on another Shiite candidate. The Iranian regime would also need to withdraw its support from Maliki, and Tehran so far has shown little sign of abandoning him. Like so much else in Iraq, the US needs Iran’s help to remove Maliki.

But there are several potential replacements, including Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a French-educated economist who is a former vice-president and a member of Hakim’s political party; Iyad Allawi, the secular Shiite leader who competed with Maliki for the top post in 2010; and Ahmad Chalabi, who was once the favorite of US neocons to lead Iraq after the invasion, but has since allied with Iran and the religious Shiite parties.

As the political jockeying unfolds, one thing is clear: Maliki has shown that he’s incapable of being a less autocratic leader who can move beyond his Shiite base. Nor can he unify a fractured Iraq. It’s time for Maliki to go.