The Iraq Report: Maliki audio leak scandal causes political storm
As Iraq continues to face an uphill battle to form a government more than nine months after the last general election in October, a new stumbling block in the political reconciliation process caused by a former prime minister has caused outrage.
Nouri al-Maliki – who was prime minister when the Islamic State (IS) group conquered a third of Iraq in 2014 – has been the centre of attention once more after an Iraqi activist leaked audio recordings of the former premier insulting a number of senior Shia political figures, including election front runner Moqtada al-Sadr.
With a violent history between the two men, who have often commanded or supported rival armed militias, Iraqis fear that a new spate of intra-Shia violence could be on the horizon, further eroding the unstable political process, and plunging Iraq into a deeper crisis.
"As the former prime minister continues to deny the authenticity of the recordings and with an increasing clamour amongst his rivals for him to face prosecution, the Iraqi judiciary has ordered a preliminary investigation"
Maliki leaks threaten 'war'
Virginia-based Iraqi blogger and activist Ali al-Fadhil has leaked several damaging audio recordings on Twitter that he says came from an hour-long conversation between Nouri al-Maliki and his senior aides.
The recordings canvassed a number of topics - from Maliki’s feelings towards his rival to his views on Iraq’s Sunni population.
Maliki – who was prime minister from 2006 until 2014 – has vehemently denied the veracity of the recordings. However, an independent Iraqi fact-checking team, Tech 4 Peace, has confirmed their authenticity. Tech 4 Peace said that there was “no sign of a cut made as a result of merging different audio clips” and that Maliki’s voice on the recording was “on one layer…free of any difference and without distortion”.
The group also said that the ambient sound in the room, as well as the fluctuating volumes of others involved in the conversation, suggested a natural rather than synthetic and faked recording. This was bolstered by an audio comparison of Maliki’s voice with a relatively recent interview he conducted with the Al-Ahad channel on 20 July.
However, as the former prime minister continues to deny the authenticity of the recordings and with an increasing clamour amongst his rivals for him to face prosecution, the Iraqi judiciary has ordered a preliminary investigation into the recordings to determine whether Maliki has any case to answer or not.
And there may well yet be a case against him, particularly as the leaks show Maliki threatening violence and even 'war'.
“The coming phase is that of fighting…I told this yesterday to Prime Minister [Mustafa] al-Kadhimi,” the recordings reveal Maliki as saying. “I told him that I am not relying on you, the army or the police. They will not do anything. Iraq is approaching a brutal war from which no one will emerge unscathed unless we manage to stop Sadr, [Mohammed] al-Halbousi and Masoud Barzani.”
Maliki then proceeded to talk about arming more than ten groups to fight this “brutal war”, including by launching an attack on the Sadrists in Najaf to maintain the authority of the marja’iya, or the most senior Shia ayatollahs.
On Sadr, Maliki said that the Shia cleric was a “coward, a traitor and ignorant”, and branded him a “murderer”, alluding to a period of kidnappings and brutal executions the Sadrist Mahdi Army militia were responsible for in Baghdad and other cities that started in 2006.
Sadr was incensed and struck back with a communique on Twitter, claiming that his life was now in danger as a result of Maliki’s words and calling upon Maliki to “abandon political work [and to] surrender himself to the judiciary”.
By directly threatening the leader of the largest opposition group, as well as the elected Sunni Arab parliamentary speaker, Halbousi, and the most powerful Kurdish politician who still maintains significant influence in Iraqi Kurdistan, Maliki may face accusations that he is undermining key state institutions, particularly the parliament.
However, the divisive and sectarian Shia Islamist has evaded parliamentary censure and calls for prosecution before, particularly after he instigated an armed rebellion and then botched the defence of Iraqi territory against IS as it took over swathes of the country in 2014.
"For many Iraqis, these leaks simply represent an unfiltered look at their former premier - not that Maliki was well-known for being diplomatic in his public speeches"
Maliki's anti-Sunni sectarianism on display
Maliki’s threat of war becomes more profound when assessing his commentary on Iraq’s Sunni groups, in which he uses the terms 'Sunni' and 'Baathists' interchangeably and describes them using sectarian language.
Despite his criticism of Sadr’s use of death squads and car bombs in the sectarian pogroms that took place between 2006 and 2009 that mainly targeted Sunni Arabs across central and southern Iraq, Maliki was recorded as saying: “All Sunnis are awful.”
This inflammatory language is nothing new for Maliki, as during the largely Sunni-led demonstration movement against his sectarian rule in 2012-2013, the lawmaker was renowned for exhorting security forces – largely Shia – to crack down violently on Sunni Arab civilians by describing them as “the camp of Yazid” – a reference to a historical event involving the Umayyad Caliph Yazid I with deep sectarian undertones.
Further, Maliki claimed that the Sunnis – and by extension and implication, the Baathists – were working as part of a British conspiracy to overthrow the Shia.
“The issue is that there is a British project aiming to put Moqtada in control of the Shia and Iraq, then they would kill him and give Iraq to the Sunnis…That project exists, but I am fighting it, and it is to be fought politically and militarily,” said Maliki.
By scapegoating the Sunnis, the State of Law Coalition leader appears to be reverting to form, as he was known for heavily abusing both de-Baathification and anti-terrorism legislation to persecute Iraq’s Sunni community.
The Sunni Arabs, combined with Iraqi Kurds who are mostly Sunnis, as well as the Turkmen community, form a substantial part of Iraq’s social fabric and have been instrumental in its political, economic and military spheres for centuries.
Painting the Sunnis as conspiring with foreign powers, with no evidence to prove his claim, is ironic for Maliki, who himself came to power with a nod of approval from both the United States and Iran. Indeed, his Da’wa Party was a leading supporter of the illegal US-led invasion in 2003.
While he may no longer be in power, his position as the leader of the State of Law Coalition, which is itself a strong power broker within the wider pro-Iran Shia bloc known as the Coordination Framework, gives him significant leverage.
It is extremely unlikely that his allies did not know his opinions before the leak, and judging by public proclamations made by some of them in the past, as well as their mutual allegiances to Tehran, they likely share some, if not all, of his views.
For many Iraqis, these leaks simply represent an unfiltered look at their former premier – not that Maliki was well-known for being diplomatic in his public speeches. By being so openly sectarian while simultaneously threatening other Shia elites as well as state institutions, these leaks will very likely lead to a further plummeting in support for the political process.
If Maliki is seen to get away with yet another damaging episode in a long career full of failures and violent episodes, it will further cement the public’s perception that Iraq’s post-2003 elite are insulated from any real accountability.
"By being so openly sectarian while simultaneously threatening other Shia elites as well as state institutions, these leaks will very likely lead to a further plummeting in support for the political process"
Such a state of affairs will prove fatal to what remains of Iraqi democracy, while simultaneously drawing battle lines between rival Shia powers in what could culminate in a violent showdown. After all, this would not be the first time Maliki and Sadr used guns to settle their disputes.
While Maliki won their last major armed confrontation in Basra in 2008 with American support, the Iraq of 2022 is a very different environment. Maliki has been forced out of office, and Sadr is not as marginalised as he once was.
Such a conflict can only lead to one outcome, however – more misery for regular Iraqis who cannot seem to escape the whirlpool of violence their country has become.
The Iraq Report is a regular feature at The New Arab.
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