Iraq’s fractured political process took a further dramatic turn on August 10 as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki publicly attacked the recently elected President Fuad Masoum. He said the president was violating the constitution by extending the 15-day deadline for tasking the nominee of the largest bloc in parliament with forming the new government.
Maliki accused the president of negligence that would lead to the rupturing of national unity and the end of the democratic process.
Despite all this, Maliki still believes he is the head of the largest bloc in parliament – the State of Law coalition – and that he should have been given the first chance to form the new government. But has he been defeated at his own game?
Struggling for legitimacy
The Shia bloc in Iraq split as a result of Maliki’s decision to cling to power and attack the president. On Monday 11 August, several of the major Shia political blocs that form part of the wider pan-Shia National Alliance met without Maliki to nominate Dr Haider al-Abadi, a senior politician from Maliki’s own Dawa party, as their official candidate.
Remarkably, Abadi managed to convince more than than half of Maliki’s State of Law MPs to defect and join his bid for the premiership.
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Maliki tried to pressure the president and threaten him with legal action for not choosing him to form the new government. In response, Maliki’s Shia rivals formally asked the president to task Abadi for that role instead.
Maliki responded immediately to this move by claiming that the National Alliance has no right to nominate anyone because they are not the largest bloc in parliament. As with the political crisis in 2010, the conflict essentially revolves around who exactly heads the “largest bloc”.
Maliki’s critics responded to his claims by reminding him that it was Maliki himself who stood by Ibrahim al-Jafari, the leader of the National Alliance, to announce that they – the broader pan-Shia National Alliance – are the largest bloc, not Maliki’s own State of Law coalition.
Maliki also signed a letter – along with other Shia political leaders – declaring that the “National Alliance” was the largest bloc in parliament. Furthermore, Abadi was recently elected deputy speaker of parliament as the National Alliance candidate – not the State of Law candidate.
In other words, Maliki himself recognised the legitimacy of the National Alliance as the largest bloc in parliament but has now reversed his position because they have nominated someone other than himself to be the next prime minister.
The international and regional response to Abadi’s nomination has been near unanimous. The United States, United Kingdom, European Union and United Nations have all publicly expressed support for Abadi. On a regional level, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Arab League and even Maliki’s erstwhile ally Iran have all publicly expressed support for Abadi.
During his weekly address on August 13, Maliki claimed his insistence on seeing this conflict “to the end” was a national and moral duty in order to protect the right of voters and to defend and respect the state itself. He even went so far as to claim that Abadi’s nomination was no less a threat to Iraq than the fall of Mosul on June 10.
In response to Maliki’s speech, a private letter from Iraq’s highest religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – who played a crucial factor in minimising Maliki’s chances of remaining in power for the third term – was made public. The handwritten letter was a response to a query from the Islamic Dawa Party – which Maliki heads – on the religious establishment’s views on the current crisis.
Sistani’s letter made it clear that in order for Iraq to be saved, a new prime minister had to be chosen who has broad support on a national level and who could work with the political leaders of different Iraqi communities. In other words, Sistani was suggesting to the Dawa Party that the solution would be to find someone other than Maliki.
The letter was a game changer because it forced Maliki’s own party to find a replacement candidate for the premiership. It was made public in response to Maliki’s claim that unconstitutional attempts to unseat him are part of a regional conspiracy. Yesterday, Maliki’s own Dawa Party officially endorsed Abadi as the prime minister designate.
Though Maliki has called for the Iraqi army not to get involved in political matters, it remains to be seen how the outgoing primer minister will react to his increasing domestic, regional and international isolation.
Crucially, Maliki is still the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Though he does not enjoy the loyalty of the military institution, he does maintain direct control over the Special Forces which are responsible for securing the Green Zone (officially the “International Zone”) in Baghdad where much of the government – and parliament – is located. These units report directly to the prime minister and do not follow the established military chain of command through the defence ministry.
While Maliki may be finished politically and stands no chance of remaining in power for a third term, he will fight this battle to the bitter end.
Hayder al-Khoei is an associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, a London-based think tank on international affairs.
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