Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki assumed office in 2006 because he was considered a “safe” choice. He kept office in 2010 after stabilizing Iraq in the aftermath of civil war. The United States, which had worked with Maliki for years leading up to his reelection, felt confident that he would prioritize security above all, which would afford Washington an honorable exit from a disastrous occupation. Iran, meanwhile, supported Shia parties that were amiable to Maliki and helped keep him in power by breaking a political deadlock; expecting all along that overlapping political and religious networks would ensure some degree of influence inside Iraq.
In spite of foreign designs and domestic challenges, Maliki has matured into his own man. Several episodes showcased this tendency in late 2011 and 2012. One day after the last U.S. troops withdrew in December, Iraq’s Judicial Council accused the country’s top Sunni official, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, of running death squads. Before his indictment, Hashemi had criticized Maliki for accumulating too much power. He quickly fled Iraq and was sentenced to death in absentia on September 9, 2012. Another high-ranking Maliki critic, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al Mutlaq (also a Sunni), was forced to flee late last year after he told reporters, “Maliki is worse than Saddam Hussein.” To this day, Maliki acts as defense and interior minister as well as prime minister.
Maliki’s attacks on Sunni rivals and his continued dominance over key ministries nearly resulted in him facing a no-confidence vote this year. Kurdistan Regional President Massoud Barzani, who controls Iraq’s northernmost territories, tried to engineer a parliamentary vote that would remove Maliki from office. For a time, it seemed like the scheme had a chance. (Although Iraq’s constitution is deeply flawed, the section detailing procedures for a no-confidence vote is clear.)
Barzani’s gamble failed, however, after Iraqi President Jalal Talabani (a rival of Barzani’s but a fellow Kurd) resisted the no-confidence procedure and votes were not forthcoming. Critics of Maliki were also alarmed by Barzani’s bold push to replace him. Many felt that it was an intolerable Kurdish power play, and that—if forced to pick sides—Baghdad was preferable to Irbil. Iran is said to be very close with Talabani’s political party, the PUK. And so it is possible that Tehran slammed the brakes on this year’s no-confidence vote by pressuring Talabani. Regardless of what did or did not happen behind the scenes, Maliki’s opposition has been weakened. It has little leverage and few options going forward.
Maliki might appreciate Iran’s assistance but he has his own selfish reasons for other policies. Most recently, Baghdad has come under scrutiny because Maliki’s government is suspected of permitting the transfer of arms from Iran to the Syrian government, which is facing a fierce rebellion. Why would Maliki help Assad or turn a blind eye to Iranian weapons transfers? As a Shia politician who has faced a bloody insurgency led by al Qaeda, Maliki knows the danger posed by jihadists. Today, Iraq’s neighbor is a battlefield saturated with Sunni extremists, all of whom are gunning for Bashar al-Assad precisely because he belongs to a Muslim minority sect loosely affiliated with Shia Islam.
Shiites constitute the majority in Iraq. But a reenergized Sunni insurgency could tear Iraq apart if jihadists crossed the border in sufficient numbers. A lesser danger for Maliki is the rise of a Sunni government in Damascus. Maliki has had serious trouble establishing durable ties with his Sunni neighbors, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, because he is seen as too closely linked to Iran, even if those connections are convenient rather than permanent.
Predictably and justifiably, Washington was alarmed by Maliki’s hesitance to intercept Iranian over-flights. On September 19, Senator John Kerry, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations committee, suggested that U.S. aid to Iraq should be withheld in light of reports indicating that Iraq was helping to arm Assad. Any suspended aid would presumably include military equipment that the U.S. is scheduled to deliver to Iraq, including 36 F-16 fighter jets. (Note: State Dept. spokeswoman Victoria Nuland rejected tying aid to the interception of aircraft on September 20, saying, “We do not support linking U.S. assistance to Iraq to the issue of Iranian overflights precisely because our assistance is in part directed towards robust security assistance including helping the Iraqis build their capability to defend their airspace.”)
The prime minister is pursuing a two-track solution to this roadblock. In order to reassure the Americans, Iraqi authorities have started intercepting planes from Iran and elsewhere. On September 21, a plane from North Korea was denied passage through Iraqi airspace; the first Iranian plane was inspected yesterday. Details are scant. What we don’t know is how much advanced warning Baghdad gives to planes that are scheduled to fly over Iraq. It may be the case that aircraft are being cherry-picked for inspection so so that no illicit cargoes are found, although there is no evidence yet.
Maliki is looking for alternatives to American aid at the same time. He is scheduled to visit Moscow later this month and media outlets in Russia and Iraq are talking about a $5 billion arms deal including aircraft, helicopters, and air-defense systems. (The U.S. media hasn’t picked up on this yet, as far as I can tell.) On September 27, Russian think tanker Konstantin Makiyenko told Interfax that the multi-billion dollar deal was a direct result of conditions imposed by Washington. “These plans reflect the decision of the Iraqi Shia government to press for independence, which they demonstrate despite political pressure from the U.S.,” he said.
Maliki may also be worried that, going forward, the U.S. could have second thoughts about handing over so much hardware to his government. Barzani, Kurdistan’s regional president, told reporters in April that Maliki should not be allowed to acquire an advanced air force because he might use it against the Kurds. It’s hard to imagine war breaking out between Baghdad and Irbil, especially since the two capitals are cooperating on oil issues at the moment, but the Kurds maintain a potent lobbying force in Washington. And so Congress could delay the transfer of F-16s to Iraq in spite of standing agreements. Some close to Maliki have already accused the U.S. of dragging its feet.
Having overcome his biggest domestic challenge and side-stepped foreign pressure, Maliki’s position seems to be strengthening. His opposition remains disorganized; Iraqi oil production is the highest in decades; and Baghdad is preparing a $500 billion infrastructure plan that could—if realized—help the country but also further enrich and empower those that Maliki chooses to do business with. Maliki’s plans for the future are uncertain and his second term ends in 2014. But 2012 sure feels like Maliki’s year.