The Eid Al Fitr terrorist attacks in Iraq led to the killing of 75 civilians. It was carried out by Al Qaida, an organisation that Iraqis wishfully thought, was now a relic of the past. This was the worst kind of violence in Iraq since 2008. The terror group warned that Shiites “will not dream of security during night or day, during Eid or other days”. This was followed by a wave of car bombs in the Iraqi capital led to the killing of 31.
These developments were on the table in the meeting between US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iraqi counterpart Hoshyar Zebari on August 15. Kerry was worried, to say the least, at the security meltdown, blaming it on the spiralling violence in neighbouring Syria. He did not blame it on the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki although Kerry seemed to be hinting that had Iraq’s position on Syria been less supportive of President Bashar Al Assad, then such acts of terror might not have happened.
Zebari denied that his country was backing the Syrian regime, claiming that Iraq was perusing a “an independent and neutral policy” on Syria. He added that it has provided no arms, money, or oil to Damascus. On the very same day, a car bomb went off at a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut, killing 14 people.
The Baghdad and Beirut attacks were clear messages to supporters of the Syrian regime: ‘Stay out of Syria.’ The question remains, will Al Maliki and Hassan Nasrallah take note?
The timing of the security crisis could not have been worse for Al Maliki. While the world is busy with Egypt and Syria, Al Maliki has been putting final touches on two measures. Both have Iran’s fingerprints all over them. One is extending the mandate of the existing parliament, which is due to expire in March 2014. Al Maliki’s Shiite proxies argue, behind closed doors, that given the explosive security situation, it would be wise to postpone elections. A behind-the-scenes look shows that they scored poorly in the April 2013 provincial elections and want to avert similar results in parliament. Al Maliki might see the attacks as a blessing in disguise to do away with democratic practice, claiming that democracy and terrorism don’t mix. Democracy will never thrive so long as Iraq is infiltrated, from top to bottom, by Al Qaida militias. Over the past three months, after all, more than a 1,000 people were killed throughout and nearly 3,000 injured by violence, a direct result from the Syrian spill-over. Over 280 people died in the first two weeks of August alone. Al Maliki has arrested more than 800 people accused of working with Sunni militias and promised to revamp the security services.
Al Maliki’s second bid is to extend his own term by an additional eight months. The official pretext is that there was a delay in forming his cabinet after the election. Al Maliki contends that his cabinet has not completed its legal mandate. Earlier this year, MPs tried to pass legislation limiting a premier’s tenure to two terms. It was squarely defeated by Al Maliki’s Iran-backed State of Law Coalition. Al Maliki has already been in power for eight years, the longest-serving prime minister in Iraqi history. It seems that he wants to be around for a while.
Al Maliki came to power through the ballot box back in 2006, but has quickly evolved into a lighter version of Saddam Hussain. He controls the security services, the key portfolios of government, the state budget, and the media. Journalists who have criticised him have famously gone to jail. He has packed the bureaucracy, the diplomatic corps, and the military with Shiite loyalists. Supporting him are powerful Shiite heavyweights like Muqtada Al Sadr and Ammar Al Hakim, who command militias that control the Iraqi street. These figures are far from independent. They take orders from Tehran and if Iran President Hassan Rouhani says Al Maliki needs a third term, they will sign it off with no questions asked. All talk about Al Hakim and Al Sadr wanting to get rid of Al Maliki is nothing, but bazaar gossip. The situation in Syria has unmasked all these figures, positioning them as Iranian puppets in the Arab world. The more the country faces Al Qaida attacks, the closer Al Maliki, Al Sadr and Al Hakim come.
Iraqi Sunnis, for sure, are furious. Al Maliki has blamed them for the deteriorating security. Further, he has systematically purged leading Sunnis from his government, like Vice-President Tareq Al Hashemi, who was sent into exile, and Finance Minister Rafia Al Issawi, who barely escaped an assassination attempt in 2012. The Baathists are still taboo in Iraqi politics. Al Maliki is the man who single-handedly wrote off the execution of every single senior Sunni of the former regime, including Saddam himself. He believes that Saudi Arabia was planning for a Sunni spring in Iraq back in 2011. Since then he has worked hard at preventing a single Sunni figure from emerging, seeing him as a Trojan Horse who will create nothing, but trouble for himself. Although the Sunni-backed secular ex-premier Eyad Allawi scored a slim majority in the 2010 elections (two seats more than the State of Law Coalition) Al Maliki made sure to prevent his return to the premiership. This was done through Iranian and Syrian support.
The upcoming parliamentary elections are probably the greatest milestone in the country’s political process since 2003. They are the first since the US left Iraq in 2011. They are the first since the outbreak of Sunni demonstrations in Anbar in early 2013. After 10 years of violence, Iraqi society — on paper — ought to have matured. People should be voting for a programme rather than sectarian or ethnic loyalties. Thanks to the continued regional meddling however, that is far from reality.
Many Shiites are no real fans of Al Maliki. They will vote for him, however, because they fear that if he goes, the Shiite community’s role will be greatly marginalised. Ordinary Iraqis are fed up with his empty promises. He has failed to improve the security situation or to provide basic services like electricity. During the hot summer of 2013, for example, power cuts were anywhere between 12 to 16 hours in Baghdad. Jobs are lacking. Hospitals are ill-equipped. Schools are medieval, and streets are unsafe.
A rapprochement with Iraqi Sunnis or with Allawi seems close to impossible. They will move heaven and earth to bring him down. Al Maliki’s only hope is winning the support of Iraqi Kurds. To win, Al Maliki needs 163 seats in the 325-seat Parliament. He currently controls 89 seats. If this parliament is extended, the Kurds already have 57 seats, thus enabling them to make or break the prime minister’s ambitions. Even if this was not to happen in the coming months, Al Maliki still has the option of postponing the elections or cancelling them altogether. He did it during the provincial elections of Anbar and Ninevah last April, after all. He can do it again.
The regional situation is ripe for Al Maliki. The war in Damascus has already diverted the world’s attention, and so has the crackdown in Cairo under Egypt army chief Abdul Fattah Al Sissi. Al Maliki is expected to visit Tehran soon to congratulate the new Iranian president and receive his blessings, and that of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Despite Zebari’s assurances, Al Maliki has clearly positioned himself in the Syrian-Iranian orbit. He might still win the blessing of the US, marketing himself, yet again, as the man combating Al Qaida in Iraq.
The security meltdown is a double-edged sword for Al Maliki. It can either give everybody more reason to keep him, despite all of his shortcomings, or it can lead to a speedy collapse of his regime.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut. He is author of ‘Syria and the USA’.