Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki

Iraq is undoubtedly moving towards dictatorship under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, IISS Senior Consulting Fellow for the Middle East Dr Toby Dodge said this week in a discussion at IISS-US. However, Dodge argued that a more muscular US commitment to promoting democracy in Iraq might prevent Maliki from assuming absolute control of the country.

Dodge described Maliki’s rise, after he first became prime minister in 2006, as a process of slowly reaching out and ‘spreading his tentacles’ throughout the Iraqi state. Maliki first took control of the Dawa Party by ousting his former boss, Ibrahim al-Jaafri, appointing himself secretary-general and filling the party ranks with loyalists. From 2007 he focused on the military, undermining the chain of command by expanding and taking control of the office of the commander in chief. He appointed a loyal general to oversee the ‘operations centres’ that coordinated security in troubled provinces. Finally, Maliki set up a separate institution for elite US-trained, special-operations troops so that he, rather than the Ministry of Defence, exercised control over them; this in essence created a praetorian guard.

In sum, Dodge argued, Maliki fractured the military, ‘coup-proofed’ himself and tied the military’s actions to his whims.

Maliki applied the same technique to the intelligence services, breaking them into six separate organisations that competed with each other. He also purged mid-level intelligence officers whom he did not trust, further personalising the bureaucracy and tightening his grip on the state.

In the 2010 elections, al-Maliki expected his coalition to win a large majority of the votes, but instead won two fewer seats than the Iraqiyya coalition. Maliki refused to accept the results, and made the rather sinister remark that violence might result should he lose power. After 249 days of negotiations, the 15-point ‘Erbil Agreement’ was signed, which allowed Maliki to remain as prime minister but with reduced powers. However, according to Dodge, the agreement was a triumph for Maliki as he had since avoided all attempts to limit his rule.

Now, Dodge claimed, Maliki was exerting his power even more subtly. Previously independent institutions, including the Independent High Electoral Committee and the Central Bank of Iraq, were recently placed under the authority of the cabinet, not the parliament, giving more power to the office of the prime minister. Dodge noted that a senior parliamentarian had expressed doubts about that body’s ability to bring a vote of no confidence, worrying that Maliki would not allow such a vote to occur, and would not honour it if it did.

Dodge believed that the military, which employees 8% of Iraqis, was capable of maintaining a ‘rough and ready’ order, mitigating security concerns. But Iraq was otherwise deteriorating, with insufficient infrastructure and a tattered economy. Against this grim backdrop, Dodge called for the US to take on a more active role in promoting democracy within Iraq. Providing financial and technical support to institutions and political parties might be the only way to give the opposition a fighting chance in preventing a return to full dictatorship.

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