Iraq's game of thrones

Iraq's game of thrones
7 min read
22 Sep, 2015
Comment: Nouri al-Maliki did not leave the stage of Iraqi politics when vacating the prime minister's office, and he's now poised to return to the spotlight, writes Zana Gulmohammad.
Maliki (left) has been largely sidelined by his successor, Abadi [Anadolu]

A fresh rivalry between Nouri al-Maliki and Haidar al-Abadi was initiated when President Fuad Masum asked Abadi to succeed Maliki as prime minister on 11 August 2014.

In public, at least, the US government backed Abadi and Iran officially congratulated him on his appointment.

Apparently, in this regard, the US and Iran were on the same page. Domestically, the major internal Shia political forces welcomed the new PM and Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest Marjia in Iraq, backed him.

Their support prevented Maliki securing a third term and paved the way for a new political calculation.

Maliki's "deep state" power, built over the course of two terms at the top of Iraq's political ladder, has been a roadblock for Abadi's exercising of authority. Maliki created a network of patronage throughout not only the military, intelligence and security structures, but also placed loyalists among the media outlets and beyond.

Maliki has since been appointed as vice-president to prevent a backlash from him and his loyalists - the "al-Malikion" - and as a compromise to his ambitions. He has continued to be active in the political sphere, particularly in the State of Law coalition - and he has supported a number of Shia militias such as the Asaib Ahl al-Haq ["League of Righteous"].

He persists in depicting himself as the saviour of Iraqis, and the protector of the Shia community from conspiracies foreign and domestic.

After Abadi's political reforms proposed cutting the size of government - abolishing the positions of deputy ministers and vice-presidents, including that held by Maliki - the rivalry between them has escalated.

The divergence has reached the Dawa party, where two informal wings have taken shape; one loyal to Abadi, one to Maliki. According to an anonymous senior party member, the tensions between the two have intensified to the point that Maliki might think to take political action or even use force to consolidate his leverage. 

A recent parliamentary report held 36 politicians and military officials - including Maliki - responsible for the fall of Mosul in June 2014.

The report-writing committee consisted of 24 Iraqi MPs from various blocs and was chaired by Hakim al-Zamili, a Shia from the Sadrist movement, who is head of the Security and Defense Committee.

     The report, at least theoretically, represents a new phase in Iraqi politics in which accountability is taken into consideration

This has undermined Maliki's political position.

The report, at least theoretically, represents a new phase in Iraqi politics in which accountability is taken into consideration. However, Iraq is far from implementing the rule of law.

There is ambiguity and no consensus among the major Shia factions regarding any consequences of this report. Therefore, putting Maliki on trial is a political matter rather than a juridical one. This report widens the chasm between Maliki and Abadi, where both represent two major Shia trends.

Maliki is depicted as conservative and pro-Iranian, while Abadi's clique is shown as relatively moderate with leanings to Iraqi nationalism. 

The rivalry continued when Abadi began to expel military, security and intelligence officers, as well as influential media directors, all loyal to Maliki.

Analysts argue that Iran's influence is declining in Iraq due to the sidelining of Maliki, and the wave of apparently non-sectarian protesters. This outlook may show a change in dynamics on the surface, but Iran's leverage in Iraq is multilayered and complex; it can be weakened or bolstered - but not eliminated. Therefore, strengthening the internal actors in Iraq inhibits interference.

Iraqi Shia factions are united in the fight against the Islamic State group. Nevertheless, the power struggle, and divisions between Shia political powers are evolving. After Maliki's sidelining, some of his allies in the State of Law coalition are sceptical of continued leadership.

The Shia political factions' alliances and policies are dependent on an unstable political and security trajectory.

Abadi and the Shia militias

The Shia militias spearheading Hashd al-Shaabi, such as the Badr Organisation, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kaaib Hezbullah and Harakat al-Nujaba keep a wary eye on Abadi's actions.

Their interests should not be underestimated, as they draw significant support from both the Iranians and the Shia masses.

Read more from Zana K Gulmohammad: The heat of protests forces government reforms in Iraq

Lately, friction has appeared between Abadi and General Qassem Soleimani - the major-general commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps' elite Quds Force.

Abadi's intention to strip Maliki of his position raised Soleimani's ire, and the military leader went on to defend Maliki in the ostensibly Shia National Iraqi Alliance and elsewhere.

Soleimani - who features in videos widely shared on social media appearing on the battlefield's front lines against the Islamic State group alongside Hashd al-Shaabi leaders - can exert influence on the major Shia militias and might yet mobilise some against Abadi.

However, Khamenei, the Iranian supreme leader would not take such a decision unless Tehran's strategic interests were jeopardised. Abadi is supported by the highest Iraqi religious figures, indicating a fissure between clerical leaders in Qom in Iran and Najaf in Iraq. Their differences are said not only to be faith-based.

There is ideological disparity between the pro-Iranian Shia militias and Sistani in Najaf in envisioning the Iraqi state.  Sistani opposes the "Wilayat al-Faqih" (Guardian of the Islamic Jurists) doctrine though many pro-Iranian Shia militias subscribe to it.    

The Shia militias have been described - by other Shia - as "heroes" after defending Baghdad and Iraq's south from the spread of IS.

As a result, they can mobilise a considerable number of Shia. Observation suggests that Abadi does not have full control of all Shia militant groups. To an extent this reflects some aspects of reality, despite the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) being the official commission of the PM's office.

Abadi's opponents hope that clashes appear between the prime minister and the pro-Iranian militias. It is a scenario from which Maliki would certainly benefit.

Baghdad is not facing a new phenomenon: a chain of kidnappings of civilians, officials - the latest being the deputy minister of justice - and foreigners - recently a group of 17 Turkish construction workers in a Shia-populated area - has escalated.

     Despite Abadi's deficiencies, he still enjoys international support and greater regional acceptance than his predecessor

This has partly been blamed on unknown and "undercover" Shia groups, after the kidnapper's video showed a phrase referencing a religious figure venerated by Shia Muslims.

Questions are being raised as to whether the kidnappings are related to the Shia militias in an attempt to hijack the entire system and move against Abadi. Beyond their demands - that appear to be associated with Turkey's foreign policy - they may seek to show Abadi as a weak leader in the Shia house.     

On September 10, "Civil Mobilisation", a protest group related to Asaab Ahl al-Haq, declared it would no longer continue with protests, as some demonstrators had apparently used "un-Islamic slogans". Maliki's militias recognise that the ongoing protests are not in their interests and would harm their goals.   

Abadi and the popular demands

The prime minister appears to be striving against a tide of obstacles. His popular support is already shaky, as tangible reforms did not meet protesters' expectations. In a move to fight corruption and improve state governance, Abadi expelled a number of deputy ministers, general managers, directors and military officers.

Abadi's opponents discredited his actions as unconstitutional and as failing to alleviate people's frustrations.

There are continued shortcomings in state services - senior corrupt officials are still free from accountability, and legitimate demands continue to emerge from the protesters such as reform of the judiciary.

Maliki and his allies could capitalise on this and disturb the entire process to show Abadi incapable of imposing the will of the people.

Despite Abadi's deficiencies, he still enjoys international support and greater comparative regional acceptance than his predecessor. The struggle between the two will have dire consequences if the Shia political forces do not mind their policies in serving the people first, rather aspiring to attain their own political ambitions.

Zana Gul is a PhD candidate at the University of Sheffield, researching Iraq's politics, security and foreign relations. He has spent years working with the Kurdistan Regional Government. Follow him on Twitter: @ZanaGul1

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.