Nouri Al Maliki
Nouri Al Maliki is now a frontrunner for the premiership, nominated by his allies in the Iran-backed all-Shiite Coordination Framework. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

Nouri Al Maliki is back — almost — two months short of the eighth anniversary of his toppling as premier, back in October 2014. The 72-year-old former premier is now a frontrunner for the premiership, nominated to the job by his allies in the Iran-backed all-Shiite Coordination Framework.

In mid-June the Al Sadrist bloc, a total of 73 MPs, collectively resigned from parliament, leaving Al Maliki’s State of Law Coalition as the largest Shiite bloc in the Chamber of Deputies, with 33 seats, making him suddenly eligible for Iraq’s top job, raising eyebrows among friends and opponents alike. His Shiite allies are promising a Maliki cabinet, with many questioning whether they can secure a 165-vote majority in parliament to make him premier.

Al Maliki’s opponents — mainly Sunni MPs — are appalled by the prospects of his comeback, pointing to his earlier track record as premier from 2006-2014. It was under Al Maliki that Shiite death squads were formed and given the freedom to roam the streets of Baghdad, assassinating prominent Sunnis whose only crime was coming from the same community that had produced Saddam Hussain. Tribal leaders were shot, retired officers were abducted from their homes and executed, and so were former members of the Baath Party. Arbitrary arrests were commonplace, and so was torture and mock trials. Sunnis insist that they were treated as an underclass under Al Maliki, denied access to top government jobs.

Militia support

Against all odds, however, and despite Sunni objections, Al Maliki managed to stay at his job for eight long years, thanks to the unwavering support of Shiite militias like the Badr Organisation of Ammar Al Hakim and the Mehdi Army of Moqtada Al Sadr. Although on opposite ends of the Shiite political spectrum, with blood vengeance driving a giant wedge between the Hakim and Al Sadr families, they found common ground in supporting Nouri Al Maliki.

In fact, it was their vote that helped bring Al Maliki to power in May 2006, narrowly defeating his rival from the Dawa Party, Ebrahim Al Jaafari. They were rewarded lavishly for their support with important posts like the ministries of health and interior, in addition to a government blanket for their militias.

If Al Maliki wants to show that he has truly mended his ways and evolved from a Shiite militia boss into a pan-Iraqi leader, then he would have to accommodate Iraqi Sunnis with respectable jobs in government and civil services.


They helped reinvent Al Sadr, who until then, was regarded as an outlaw for leading an armed insurgency against the Americans, legitimising him on the streets of Baghdad. Al Sadr was very influential among the Shiite poor; Hakim among high society Shiites, two sectors to which Al Maliki had no access. In return, Al Maliki looked the other way as their thugs took the law into their own hands, terrorising Iraqi society. In December 2006 Saddam himself was hanged by masked executioners not from the Iraqi justice but from Al Sadr’s militias, chanting “Moqtada … Moqtada” as they put the noose around the former president’s neck.

That alliance snapped in 2014, when nearly all of Al Maliki’s supporters walked out on his government, blaming him for the sweeping rise of the Islamic State (Daesh). Al Sadr and Hakim blamed him for the fall of Mosul and Tikrit, supporting his ouster and replacement by Haidar Abadi, another Iranian protégé.

Learning from mistakes of his predecessors

Al Maliki was not entirely destroyed, left with the ceremonial post of vice-president, into which he was parachuted in late 2014. From that job he waited patiently, watching his successors rotate at the seat of power in Baghdad, taking notes while preparing for his own comeback.

Haidar Abadi was forced to resign in October 2018 because he decided to abide by US sanctions on Iran, instructing Iraqi banks to stop doing business with their Iranian counterparts. His successor, Adel Abdul Mehdi, was forced out because of the exact opposite reason — for being too close to Iran. It was under his one-year tenure that a popular uprising broke out in October 2019, demanding rehaul of the political system and ending Iranian tutelage.

Abdul Mehdi sided firmly with Iran, sending security forces to disperse the demonstrators by force, killing hundreds. Then came Mustapha Al Kadhimi, the incumbent premier, who tried to dismantle Iran’s power base in Iraq, taking gabs against Kata’eb Hezbollah and the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU). All traditional Shiite parties walked out on him, saying that he had backstabbed the very same men who had brought him to power.


Al Maliki wants to avoid the fate of all three premiers. He remains loyal to Iran but needs to come across as more neutral than how he looked and acted during the years 2006-2014. On July 4, 2022, he came out with a statement, saying that his new government will be a “service-oriented cabinet” where “nobody” is left out. That would be easier said than done, however. “Nobody” means “nobody,” and that includes the Al Sadrists. Although no longer members of parliament, they still have the ability to destabilise any government, and in order to form one, Al Maliki needs their blessing. Small rewards, like the Ministry of Health, will no longer suffice for the Al Sadrists. In order to support — or at a bare minimum — not veto his appointment, they would need strategic portfolios like interior, education, finance, and foreign affairs.

The same is to be said of the main Sunni players, now rallied around Parliament Speaker Mohammad Halbousi (an ally of Moqtada Al Sadr) and MP Khamis Khanjar. If Al Maliki wants to show that he has truly mended his ways and evolved from a Shiite militia boss into a pan-Iraqi leader, then he would have to accommodate Iraqi Sunnis with respectable jobs in government and civil services. He would also have to win the backing of 60 independent MPs voted into office last October, who are mostly anti-establishment and have an axe to grind with representatives of the post-Saddam order.

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For starters, they would like to see accountability for the thousands of Iraqis tortured and killing during the 2019-2020 crackdown. Kadhimi had promised to bring them justice and failed. Al Maliki too will fail if he tries walking down that line, given that justice means arresting security personnel affiliated with the same Shiite parties that brought him to power. The independent bloc is also making claims to public-sector institutions like the Electricity Company and the Municipality of Baghdad.

The Coordination Framework will have to accept whatever concessions Al Maliki decides to make as a fait accompli. They simply can no longer demand a lion’s share of cabinet seats, given that they have been rewarded with the premiership through Al Maliki, and will have to settle for an Al Sadr-packed government. But even then, there are voices within the Coordination Framework who will not support an Al Maliki comeback, like Haidar Abadi, who until last month, was the Shiite coalition’s main candidate to replace Mustapha Al Kadhimi.

Other names who were rubbing their hands and waiting for Kadhimi to fall were the current governor of Basra As’ad Eidani (Iraqi National Congress — Ahmad Chalabi). and National Security Adviser Qassem Al Araji (Badr Organization). Unless they are ordered by Iran to drop their objection to an Al Maliki comeback, these men will refuse to work with the new premier, creating major divisions within the Shiite political family.

— Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.