Return of al-Maliki points to PM’s tenacity

CAIRO — Barely five years ago, mentioning Nouri al-Maliki’s name would have stirred little or no interest in Iraq’s corridors of power. Since then, he’s been maligned by Sunnis for his hard-line religious stance and by fellow Shias for a decision to crack down on militia violence.

By (AP)

Published: Thu 11 Nov 2010, 11:52 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 8:10 AM

Now, the dour-looking former schoolteacher will have four more years as prime minister of Iraq.

The story of al-Maliki’s meteoric political rise speaks to the unpredictability of Iraq’s post-Saddam Hussein politics and the tenacity of a politician who lost an election but held on to power.

“He was able to rally a diverse array of blocs and political groups around him, including the enemies of the past,” said Kazim al-Shimmari, a lawmaker from the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc, whose 91 seats in the legislature are two more than those won by al-Maliki’s coalition in the March 7 election. “Al-Maliki’s maneuvers were deft and he was very clever in taking advantage of the mistakes made by our bloc.”

Al-Maliki, a 60-year-old Shiite with a master’s degree in Arabic literature and a steely demeanor, rose to power in 2006 as a compromise candidate backed by radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, but it soon became obvious that the politician was no pushover.

He was accused by many Sunnis of having a sectarian slant and seeking to punish the minority Islamic sect for Saddam Hussein’s repression of Shiites. That reputation was reinforced by widespread abuse and torture at the hands of the mainly Shiite government security forces seeking to crack down on a rampant Sunni insurgency.

Ironically, al-Maliki later alienated one of his main Shiite supporters when he backed US-Iraqi offensives against al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia and ordered the arrest of hundreds of fighters loyal to the cleric. Meanwhile, he developed a close relationship with George W. Bush, holding weekly videoconferences with the American president that have not been continued by the Obama administration.

While al-Maliki has insisted he wants national unity among Iraq’s three main groups — Shias, Sunnis and Kurds — his successful bid to stay in power threatens to further alienate Sunnis, who had thrown their support behind a secular Shia candidate, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

Al-Maliki was born in June 1950 in a village near the Shia city of Hillah south of Baghdad. A devout Shia, he fled Saddam’s regime in 1979, a year before being sentenced to death in absentia for his membership in the Dawa Party. He lived in exile in Iran and Syria.

While in Syria, he quickly rose through the Dawa Party ranks to become the party’s chief representative there. He returned to Iraq soon after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and served as an adviser to his predecessor, former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. He then won the top post after al-Jaafari failed to secure a second term in office in the face of opposition from fellow Shia parties, including the Sadrists, and the Kurds.

Al-Maliki became a hero in the eyes of many Shiites when he signed off on Saddam’s execution on the eve of the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha in December 2006. But the move infuriated Sunnis after Shiites present at the hanging taunted the ousted dictator as he went to the gallows.

In 2009, following the military offensives that helped reduce violence, al-Maliki’s party scored an astonishing victory in nationwide local elections that exposed the weakness of his Shiite rivals.

He maintained remarkable composure, which was on display during a rocket attack near the building where he was holding a joint 2007 news conference with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The petrified UN chief ducked and looked unsettled for minutes. Al-Maliki did not flinch.

“There is nothing,” he told his guest in Arabic.

He also maintained calm when an Iraqi journalist hurled his shoes at Bush, who was standing next to al-Maliki during a December 2008 news conference in Baghdad. Bush deftly ducked the shoes; while al-Maliki stood still.

The odds were stacked against him as he pursued a second term.

His Sunni partners in government publicly accused him of pursuing sectarian policies targeting their once-dominant community.

He broke with his Shia partners, who accused him of overstepping his authority and not sharing power with them.

The Kurds were equally frustrated, accusing al-Maliki of adopting a dictatorial style of governance. They bristled at his opposition to what they saw as their right to directly contract foreign companies to explore for oil in their autonomous region in northern Iraq.

But al-Maliki’s political opportunism served him well.

In the run-up to the vote, he stood by as a Shia-led committee mandated with keeping Saddam loyalists out of public office disqualified dozens of Sunni election candidates. Then he focused on negotiating with potential allies, including former enemies and harsh critics, to devalue the surprise victory of the Iraqiya bloc led by secular Shia Ayad Allawi.

He successfully demanded a recount in Baghdad and obtained a court ruling that the mandate to form a government goes to the largest bloc of parties — rather than the single party that emerges with the largest number of seats in the new legislature.

“Al-Maliki’s success cannot be entirely attributed to clever political maneuvers; rather, it was largely to do with the use of his powerful position as the current prime minister,” political analyst Kazim al-Muqdadi said, citing the release of Sadrist detainees to win the support of their political leaders. “That position enabled him to move freely and offer rewards for blocs in exchange for their support.”

Yassin al-Mutlaq, a Sunni lawmaker, said he did not expect much to change.

“The next government is a government of political deals, exactly like the old one,” he said. “So, I do not think that there will be a big change in the performance of the new government and al-Maliki will keep on his old policies.”

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