When the American military presence in Iraq ended in December 2011, Washington and Baghdad claimed that Iraq was a stable, sustainable democracy. However, this appears questionable as Nuri al-Maliki, prime minister since 2006, has continued his quest to dominate the state and to use its power to break opposition to his rule,  leaving the country vulnerable to heightened sectarian tension and a new civil war.

When the American military presence in Iraq ended in December 2011, Washington and Baghdad claimed that Iraq was a stable, sustainable democracy. However, this appears questionable as Nuri al-Maliki, prime minister since 2006, has continued his quest to dominate the state and to use its power to break opposition to his rule. His systematic exclusion of key politicians from power underlines the failure of the 2010 elections to deliver representative government, and leaves the country vulnerable to heightened sectarian tension and a new civil war.

US withdrawal

On 15 December 2011, United States Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta oversaw a ceremony at Baghdad International Airport to mark the departure of American forces more than eight years after the US-led invasion in March 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein. The Status of Forces Agreement signed in 2008 dictated that all US troops had to leave the country by the end of 2011. This meant that from the start of 2012, Iraq once again exercised full national sovereignty.

Antony Blinken, US Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, said in March: ‘Iraq today is less violent, more democratic and more prosperous … than at any time in recent history.’ A superficial glance at recent Iraqi history would support his optimism. Since 2003, Iraq has successfully held three national elections, with power transferred from interim prime minister Ayad Allawi to Ibrahim al-Jaafari in 2005, and from him to Maliki in 2006. Maliki secured a second term in 2010, after March elections that produced no clear result. Extended but peaceful multi-party negotiations produced the Irbil Agreement of November 2010, a complex power-sharing deal which divided cabinet posts between the numerous parties that did well in the elections and placed constraints on Maliki’s power.

Politicians accused

However, evidence soon emerged to support a more pessimistic analysis. On the evening of Panetta’s leaving ceremony, Iraqi troops and tanks under the command of Maliki’s son Ahmed surrounded the homes of Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi and Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq. All three are leading members of the Iraqiyya coalition, which gained two more parliamentary seats than Maliki’s State of Law Alliance in the elections. The troops placed the three under temporary house arrest. They then detained three of Hashimi’s bodyguards, though the vice president was allowed to leave Baghdad for Irbil, capital of the Kurdistan Region.

After four days in detention the three bodyguards appeared on national television and confessed that Hashimi had paid them to carry out a series of assassinations and bomb attacks. Judges then issued an arrest warrant for Hashimi, also citing three more confessions from policemen in the northwestern town of Fallujah. These claimed that the vice president, Issawi and senior regional members of their party had set up and run a death squad, called ‘Hamas of Iraq’, in the town since 2005.

However, doubt was soon cast on the veracity of the confessions and their political motivation was highlighted. Those involved in torturing the bodyguards while in custody gave a detailed interview to Britain’s Guardian newspaper, explaining how they had extracted the confessions and describing their contents as ‘absurd’. On 15 March, credence was added to the accusations of torture when one of the bodyguards, Amir Sarbut Zaidan al-Batawi, died in custody. Government officials claimed he had suffered kidney failure but pictures of his corpse showed clear evidence of extended brutal treatment.

One-man rule

Several leading Iraqi politicians, all signatories of the Irbil Agreement, have since warned of what they see as Maliki’s clear dictatorial ambitions. Mutlaq, the deputy prime minister, was sacked and banned from cabinet meetings after claiming that Maliki was ‘worse than Saddam Hussein’. Allawi, former prime minister and leader of the Iraqiyya coalition, wrote in the Washington Times that ‘the country is slipping back into the clutches of a dangerous new one-man rule, which inevitably will lead to full dictatorship.’ Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Region, while on an official trip to Washington, told his hosts, ‘Iraq is facing a serious crisis ... it’s coming towards one-man rule.’

Worries about Maliki’s dictatorial ambitions focus on how the Irbil Agreement has been undermined. The agreement was meant to place clear limits on his power by allowing Iraqiyya to appoint the defence and interior ministers. However, after repeatedly rejecting the candidates proposed, in June 2011 he appointed a close adviser, Falih al-Fayyad, as acting minister of national security. In August, he picked the minister of culture, Saadoun al-Dulaimi, as acting minister of defence while retaining the post of acting minister of the interior for himself. By designating weak politicians or people directly tied to himself as acting ministers, Maliki has retained control over the army, police force and intelligence services. He has successfully circumvented both the Irbil Agreement and the constitutional demand for cabinet posts to be validated by parliament. And as the Irbil Agreement has no constitutional nor legal standing, the only sanction Maliki faces for breaching it is a vote of no confidence in parliament. A senior parliamentarian, when asked about this option, commented: ‘If we move towards a vote of no confidence do you think he [Maliki] would allow members to reach the chamber and if they did do you really think he would take any notice?’

Concern has also been raised by Maliki’s public statements about how state power will be exercised in the future. A week after US troops left Iraq, he gave a news conference in which he effectively repudiated the Irbil Agreement and threatened to move away from coalition government to a majoritarian one based around the Shia Islamist political parties.

Meanwhile the role and influence of the prime minister’s office has greatly expanded: Ahmed Maliki was placed at its centre as deputy to the chief of staff, giving him an oversight role for all of Iraq’s security services while also making him responsible for his father’s security. A pliable judiciary has helped: in January 2011, Chief Justice Medhat al-Mahmoud ruled that a series of previously independent and powerful agencies set up during the American occupation – the Committee of Integrity, the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC), the Central Bank of Iraq and the High Commission for Human Rights – were now subject to direct cabinet oversight. Given that the cabinet itself is weak and fractious, the ruling clearly increased the influence and reach of the prime minister’s office.

In the aftermath of the judge’s ruling, the parliamentary speaker, Osama al-Nujaifi, sent a letter to the cabinet seeking to defend the central bank’s independence. However, parliament itself has also seen its powers undermined by judicial ruling. In 2010, the Higher Judicial Council ruled that new legislation could only be proposed by the cabinet not parliament, thus giving the prime minister, as the dominant voice in cabinet, the ability to control the work of the legislature.

Most recently, in April 2012, Faraj al-Haidari, the head of the IHEC, was arrested on charges of corruption and held in prison for four days. The IHEC, which oversees national and provincial elections as well as any referendums, was praised by the United Nations for running a free and fair election in 2010, but was blamed by Maliki when he failed to obtain a majority. The arrest of its head and another senior official on minor corruption charges is clearly an attempt to intimidate the commission, and puts the transparency and fairness of future elections in doubt.

Federal challenge

Given Maliki’s ceaseless attempts to centralise power in his own hands, it is little surprise that he sought to break the power of his main opposition, Iraqiyya, by moving against Hashimi, Issawi and Mutlaq. The key to the timing of the move, so soon after the pullout of US troops, may lie in demands for federalism from Iraq’s provinces, which could represent the most sustained threat to Maliki’s dominance.

Iraq’s constitution was hurriedly written in 2005 and remains a controversial document. The final draft was seen as a victory for the two dominant Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party. Their aim was to keep the autonomous powers they had amassed since 1991, while placing as many limits as possible on the power of Baghdad. With this in mind, the constitution gave individual regions the right to exercise executive, legislative and judicial authority, and demand an equitable share of national oil revenues. Iraq’s 18 provinces were given the right to become regions with federal powers like those of the Kurdish Regional Government. A referendum could be triggered simply by a vote of a province’s council.

During 2011, key Iraqiyya politicians – particularly Nujaifi and Hashimi – came to the realisation that regional decentralisation was the only democratic way to limit Maliki’s power. The prime minister’s response in October 2011 was to unleash a wave of arrests across the three provinces that form an arc around northern Baghdad – Anbar, Salahuddin and Diyala – which had delivered a large section of Iraqiyya’s votes and members of parliament.

This prompted the councils of Salahuddin and Diyala to vote to hold referendums seeking greater federal powers. Anbar threatened to follow suit. More worrying for Maliki were attempts by the southern Shia-majority provinces of Basra and Wasit to do the same. Faced with constitutionally legitimate attempts to weaken the centre’s dominance, Maliki unleashed another wave of repression and exerted his influence over the electoral commission to make sure the referendums would never take place.

In December, two days before his house was surrounded by Iraqi troops, Hashimi threw his support behind the federalist movements, saying the provinces’ citizens ‘are unwilling to accept further injustice, corruption and bad management from the central government’. Against this background, Maliki’s move against the vice president and his efforts to limit Iraqiyya’s role in government can be seen as attempts to halt this serious threat to his hold on power.

Risk of more violence

The prime minister’s attempts to both centralise power in his own hands and marginalise Iraqiyya, his main electoral rivals, could seriously destabilise Iraqi politics, potentially reigniting the civil war that ended in 2008. Communities and political parties deliberately excluded from power in Baghdad could, once again, seek redress through coordinated violence aimed at driving Maliki from power.

The national elections of 2010 represented a major political breakthrough. The first post-Saddam elections in January 2005 had been held in the midst of an insurgency that spread from northwestern Iraq into Baghdad. The insurgents’ aim, as well as to drive US forces out of Iraq, was to overturn a political settlement that specifically excluded from power members of the old regime and those associated with them. At the same time, the settlement empowered formerly exiled politicians who used ethnicity and religion as a potent tool for political mobilisation. As a result of violence, exclusion and alienation, the 2005 elections saw very low turnout among Sunni-majority communities in Baghdad and across the northwest. Parliament and government subsequently came to be dominated by political parties that overtly mobilised the Shia religious vote. The elections thus played a major role in pushing Iraq into the civil war that plagued the country until 2008.

In 2010, Allawi’s Iraqiyya coalition successfully mobilised the same Sunni voters of northwest Iraq who had boycotted the 2005 elections. Iraqiyya held out the promise that democratic participation, as opposed to violent rebellion, could deliver a representative and responsive government. This promise gave Iraqiyya 2,851,823 votes and 91 seats in the new parliament compared to Maliki’s State of Law Alliance which came second with 2,797,624 votes and 89 seats.

The problem now is that Iraqis do not have anything approaching the representative government that the 2010 vote promised. Instead, Maliki has continued his quest for domination, seeking to exclude Iraqiyya politicians from power and using repressive measures to this end. The longer-term risk, therefore, is that Maliki’s ambitions may yet drive the country back into civil war.

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