Nouri al-Maliki (left) shakes hands with his successor, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, in 2014. AP file photo.
Former Iraqi prime minister and current vice president, Nouri al-Maliki, has denied he was seeking to reclaim the premiership. However, he was quoted by The Wall Street Journal as saying that “the Iraqis want change.”
Apparently worried that these words implied he was overtly trying to bring down Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government, Maliki’s official Facebook page declared on Saturday night: “There is no truth in reports published by some digital media that the head of the State of Law supports efforts to bring down the government after the completion of the Mosul operation.”
Nevertheless Maliki is very critical of Abadi’s conduct in Mosul, and will likely become more so when ISIS is forced from that city. Maliki no longer believes that ISIS poses a real threat to Iraq as it is being forced from its last foothold in the country.
The former prime minister has already accused Abadi of not doing enough to halt Kurdish Peshmerga advances into the so-called disputed territories in the Nineveh region – whose status Baghdad has yet to resolve by simply implementing Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution.
Also, according to The Wall Street Journal report, Maliki condemned Abadi for not doing enough to oppose Turkey’s presence in the Bashiqa region northeast of Mosul. Turkey has also threatened to militarily intervene against the Shiite-majority paramilitary known as Hashd al-Shaabi if they enter the Turkmen city of Tal Afar west of Mosul. Abadi subsequently said that only the Iraqi Army will enter that city, implying that he was addressing Turkish concerns to avoid the possibility of a confrontation.
Maliki has, interestingly, contradicted this point of view, claiming that facts on the ground have led Abadi to acquiesce to a Hashd entrance to Tal Afar, even if it runs the risk of a Turkish response.
“I do not think there is an objection from Abadi [on Hashd entrance to Tal Afar],” Maliki told Al Sharqiya News on November 27, “but the nature of the war necessitates it.”
Even if he denies seeking the premiership once again Maliki could do great damage to post-ISIS efforts to stabilize Iraq if he helps bring down Abadi after Mosul is recaptured.
Since succeeding Maliki in September 2014 Abadi has faced a variety of challenges, first and foremost among them the fight against ISIS, but also challenges to his premiership. Supporters of the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr even stormed the Iraqi parliament twice earlier this year after Abadi failed to live up to his promise to implement sweeping reforms in parliament.
In August and September two key ministers in Abadi’s government, the ministers for defense and finance, were ousted by parliamentarians voting via secret ballots. Iraq experts believe this was Maliki manipulating different blocs in parliament to undercut Abadi’s power and legitimacy. Nevertheless, Abadi has so far managed to conduct the present offensive against Mosul and keep his government in power in spite of these shortcomings.
Maliki demonstrated his ability to manipulate political rivals to get desired results in Kurdistan when, in July, he chose to visit Sulaimani, instead of the capital Erbil, and met with senior officials in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – who likely voted against Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari, of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) later in September.
Abadi has been much more receptive to negotiations with Erbil on the subject of Kurdish independence and both were able to negotiate a groundbreaking oil agreement ahead of the Mosul operation, a far cry from the state of relations between Baghdad and Erbil during Maliki’s tenure.
Bringing down Abadi’s government after the Mosul operation is complete could also jeopardize fragile efforts to reach a necessary rapprochement with Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority, which will be needed to ensure ISIS’s defeat is, both militarily and politically, a permanent one. If Maliki has any sway in decision-making in Baghdad in the future, or becomes prime minister again, a repeat of his heavy-handed measures against the Sunnis (the crushing of grassroots protests in Anbar and Nineveh, which paved the way for ISIS’s takeover before 2014) could lead to more destabilization and pave the way to ISIS’s reemergence, or the emergence of a similar group.
Then there is the status of the Hashd al-Shaabi. In late November the Iraqi parliament voted overwhelmingly to recognize the group as a government entity, to be operated alongside the regular Iraqi Army. Having the Hashd operating under government control alongside the army is a good way to minimize the possibility that this militia can be used against a sitting government by a member of the opposition. It’s worth remembering that when Maliki was prime minister, he refused to tolerate the challenge to the government by Sadr’s Mahdi Army back in 2008, which was officially disbanded before the ISIS war when Sadr entered politics. Putting the Hashd directly under government command and control is likely the best option available at present.
Abadi has demonstrated that he knows what necessary steps need to be taken to stabilize post-ISIS Iraq. He is negotiating in good faith with the Kurds, he is conscious of the need for reconciliation with the Sunnis and he understands that an Iraqi government relying heavily on brute force to solve these problems will not only fail, but make its problems much worse.
Rudaw’s Osamah Mohammed contributed to this report.