Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is riding high off of his recent government offensives against insurgents and Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. The crackdowns have given him a nationalist image that he lacked before as he has taken on both Sunni and Shiite groups. This is a huge turnaround for Maliki who was facing a no confidence vote in parliament in late-2007. Now the prime minister is facing another challenge, the provincial elections.
While Maliki currently has the highest popularity ratings of his term in office, he lacks a strong party to build upon these successes. His Dawa party split in two in June 2008 when former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari created the National Reform Party. Dawa was already the smallest of the three major Shiite factions, the Sadrists and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) being the other two. Dawa was one of many exile groups that returned to Iraq after the invasion, and found itself with little popular support. After Jaafari’s defection, Maliki is looking at an even smaller following. He is now doing what he can to build up a base.
The latest effort is to hand out cash to the public. Wherever Maliki goes, he and his aides pass out money. According to the Associated Press, Maliki can give up to $8,000 to an individual, but only one time. Mostly the amounts are much smaller at around $200-$400 at a time, which is still huge to most Iraqis who are struggling with wages, joblessness, and a recent spike in prices. The government claims that these handouts are part of the government’s plans to boost the economy, but they are too small and haphazard, not to mention it would be a joke if they thought such an effort would have any real effect. It is much more likely that these payouts are a way to get publicity, especially word of mouth, about the generosity of the Prime Minister in an election period.
Maliki is also trying to take away some of Sadr’s Shiite followers. The government has set up local neighborhood security units in Sadr City, similar to the U.S.-supported Sons of Iraq. This could sway some militiamen to Maliki’s side. The Iraqi Army is also handing out food and supplies to residents of Sadr City three to five times a week. While this isn’t the $100 million that the Prime Minister has promised, it is something for an area that is widely considered one of the poorest in the capitol. Finally, as reported earlier, Maliki is also trying to usurp Sadr’s anti-American stance by demanding a timetable for U.S. troops to withdraw in the U.S.-Iraqi security negotiations. Forcing America out of Iraq has been one of the main goals of Sadr.
It is still to be seen whether these tactics will work for Maliki. The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council for one, has much more of a machine behind it, and has gained in the south after the security crackdowns on the Mahdi Army. Sadr is down, but not out as well. This inter-Shiite battle for supremacy is one of the major issues that will play out in the elections. How Maliki does will be a sign of whether he really has been able to fashion himself into a nationalist leader, or if force was the only weapon the Prime Minister had in his arsenal.
Associated Press, “Six parliamentary factions to coordinate efforts in Iraqi parliament, lawmakers say,” 6/8/08
Biddle, Stephen, Nasr, Vali, Nash, William, “Political and Security Developments in Iraq and the Region,” Council on Foreign Relations, 6/12/08
Bruce, Andrea, “Desperate for Army Aid in Baghdad,” Washington Post, 7/14/08
Buzbee, Sally and Abdul-Zahra, Qassim, “Iraq handing out cash to people on the streets,” Associated Press, 7/12/08
Fadel, Leila and al Dulaimy, Mohammed, “Fighting resumes in Baghdad; rockets kill three Americans,” McClatchy Newspapers, 4/6/08
Glanz, James and Farrell, Stephen, “Crackdown on Militias Raises Stability Concerns,” New York Times, 4/8/08
Mohsen, Amer, “Iraq Papers Mon: Australian Troops to Depart,” IraqSlogger.com, 6/1/08
O’Hanlon, Michael and Pollack, Kenneth, “Iraq: One Year Later,” Brookings Institution, 6/13/08