Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Is Iraq’s Prime Minister Maliki More Like Premier Nuri al-Sa’id Than Saddam? An Interview With Historian Phebe Marr

The most typical comparison made by critics of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is that he is becoming the next Saddam Hussein. This can be heard by various politicians from the Sadr bloc (1) to Iyad Allawi (2) to Deputy Premier Saleh al-Mutlaq to Kurdish Premier Nechirvan Barzani. This is hyperbole meant to score political points with their constituents against Maliki since Saddam is an obvious reference point from the recent past that all of Iraqi society remembers. In terms of historical leaders in the country however, Maliki might be more like Nuri al-Sa’id (1888-1958) who was the premier eight times during the British mandate and royalist era of Iraq. Both Maliki and Sa’id share several characteristics including their authoritarian style of rule, and the use of personal politics and patronage over institutions. Below is an interview with historian Phebe Marr about the similarities and differences between the two Iraqi leaders.
Premier Sa'id on the cover of Time, 1957
1. Many people don’t remember or don’t know who Nuri al-Sa’id is, so let’s begin with some background. Sa’id was a product of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Iraq for several centuries. What did Sa’id do under the Ottomans, and how did that influence him?

Nuri al-Sa’id’s  career spanned the last years of the Ottoman Empire before its collapse during World War I and the establishment and development of the Iraqi state until 1958. Nuri came from a Baghdad family of modest means; his father was a middle level Ottoman bureaucrat. In this period, the Ottomans were attempting to modernizing their state, especially the bureaucracy and the army  and the public education system, which trained young boys to participate in these institutions. These schools taught a curriculum which was relatively secular and modern. Teaching was in Turkish, and all  higher education led to Istanbul. Nuri entered the military primary school at age 8. He then went to military secondary school, and on to Istanbul, where he graduated as a military officer at 18. When Nuri returned to Baghdad in 1906, he was not only responsible for helping to keep “law and order” in the Iraqi provinces, but also such tasks as collecting taxes in the countryside, not always easy. This gave him widespread contact with local tribal leaders and the rural population, which stood him in good stead in later days. The Ottoman system at the time was based partly on coercion and centralization of power, but it was weak and hence had to incorporate different elements of the diverse population it ruled into the system through benefits, favors, and patronage. Although he joined a secret Arab society against continued Ottoman rule and later joined the Arab revolt in the Hijaz, he was no revolutionary. While he had imbibed Western ideas of nationalism and constitutionalism, he had had no actual experience in democratic practice. What did Nuri take away from all this?  I would say a pattern of governance that relies on the central government (the army and bureaucracy) especially for law and order; a desire for modernization—from the top down, and  the proclivity to deal with tribes, religious leaders and other powerful local forces through “patronage” and personal relations—not democratic processes and institutions.

2. Sa’id and Maliki were both deeply influenced by Iraqi nationalism even though their circumstances were different. Can you explain how Iraqi independence shaped both of them?

The desire for independence from foreign control is natural, especially among those trained for leadership, and Iraqis are steeped in this sentiment. Iraqis do not think Iraq was really “independent” until after the monarchy and Nuri were overthrown, and British influence ended. Maliki, too, can lay claim to “independence” only after the U.S. withdrawal in 2011, and even now many Iraqis question whether  Iraq is truly independent from the U.S. or its neighbors. However, Iraqi nationalism implies something else, a sense of Iraqi identity, a complex problem that has plagued Iraq from the establishment of the modern state.  Nuri, like Maliki, was an Arab and an Iraqi with specific roots in a locality, Baghdad. But he was also a product of the rise of Arab nationalism. Like others of his generation, he wanted freedom from Ottoman influence, but there was, as yet, no Iraqi state with which to identify. Like others, he had mixed feelings about the division of the Arab world into smaller states, including Iraq although he had no control over events. This mixture of Arab and Iraqi identity continues to the present day.  We should remember that Nuri was a founding member of the Arab League although, as a realist, he gradually shifted his focus to an “Iraqi- first” identity. And as a realist, by training and experience, he knew the necessity for outside help, and was an early supporter of the British tie. 
Maliki's grandfather was an Iraqi nationalist involved in the 1920 revolt, which shaped the prime minister's own worldview (AFP)
Maliki has a totally different background. He was born in a small town near Hillah in  predominantly tribal and Shi’a territory. Not much is known about his father but his grandfather, Muhammad Hasan Abu-l-Muhassin, was a well known poet who played a role in the early Iraqi revolt against the British in 1920, and was briefly a Minister in 1926 although he resigned over the British Treaty. Maliki has written a Master’s thesis on his grandfather’s poetry, and knows this history.  Educated in Islamic Studies in Usul al-Din College in Baghdad, where Arabic language is strong, he  joined the Dawa Party early, reportedly in 1963. An underground movement inspired by a charismatic young reformist cleric, Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, father-in-law of Muqtada, the Dawa, a religious party, was opposed to communism and secularism, and encouraged a return to Iraq’s Islamic roots; among Shi’a it became the main opposition to the Ba’th after it came to power in 1968. Maliki paid a high price for his affiliation with the party by persecution from the regime, followed by exile for almost 25 years, first in Iran and then Syria, where he continued work as a Dawa leader. The Dawa has traditionally had two strong strands, a return to Islamic and Shi’a identity, and a sense of “Iraqi nationalism”. These have both been evident in Maliki, although it is difficult to make a definitive assessment of his core views, since he is still new to power and relatively inexperienced compared to Nuri. One of his main aims, in my view, is to achieve Iraq’s independence, both from the U.S., and Iran; easier said than done. His ability to maneuver the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) through parliament in 2009 was impressive, and in 2011 he insisted on the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces. His success in keeping Iran at bay remains to be seen. 

3. Sa’id served as the Prime Minister of Iraq eight times, beginning in 1930. Iraq at the time actually had several strong institutions from the Ottomans and British, but Sa’id instead relied upon family, tribes, and patronage to rule. Can you explain his style of governing, and how that’s similar to current Premier Nouri al-Maliki’s?

Nuri’s style of governing developed over a long period, almost four decades. Nuri was heavy-handed with his opposition inside Iraq; his ability to cow them, and their opposition to the 1930 treaty with Britain is what first gave him ascendency in British minds and among Iraqis. Nuri had long standing personal ties with officers and understood the necessity of “controlling” the military. And Nuri also had to contend with a new parliamentary system brought by the British. He was not averse to shutting down objectionable newspapers, declaring martial law, manipulating elections, and in the case of Communist Party leaders, arresting, trying and executing them. In parliament, he relied on a coterie of followers among tribal landlords and others who, of course, benefited from government patronage and the passage of legislation that favored their interests. These were time honored methods of governing under the Ottomans. Nuri also worked through personal relations  and was tireless in developing them; he wore down most of his opponents and even a younger generation of leaders who might have gradually taken his place. Maliki has a long way to go to equal Nuri in political experience, but it should be no surprise that in a situation in which Iraq’s key institutions, the army, the bureaucracy, have been destroyed, its educated class  badly eroded, Maliki is falling back on well known practices, recognizable to those used by Nuri. Maliki, too, has to work within a new constitutional system that he is manipulating. He must get elected to gain and maintain power; hence the appeal to his broadest possible base, the Shi’a. To stay in power and govern, he also relies on patronage, now greatly enhanced through oil revenues.  Of course, he pays attention to the Iraq Security Forces (ISF) and the personal loyalty of its leaders.  But Maliki has more serious problems today than Nuri faced for most of his tenure, the gradual breakdown of the state, Kurdish, and now Sunni, separatism; very weak domestic institutions (army, police, bureaucracy, parliament), rising sectarianism, and a turbulent regional scene, Syria, already spilling over into Iraq.  Unlike Nuri, Maliki can no longer rely on a “treaty” or even a commitment from the U.S. to back him up in a fix. It is worth noting, that in 1941 during World War II  the pro-British monarchy and its supporters, Nuri, were almost overthrown in a coup, and were only restored after British military intervention and occupation until 1946. In 1958, in the face of a restive population, numerous demonstrations and strikes, and strong opposition to “foreign” alliances, the Baghdad Pact, the opposition succeeded in overthrowing the monarchy and Nuri permanently when the British and the U.S., the “international community” declined to get involved. Maliki knows this history better than Americans.

4. Sa’id and Maliki both saw oil as a way to develop Iraq’s economy. How did both think that petroleum would help with their rule of the country?

Nuri and Maliki are functioning under different circumstances on oil. Oil is now a fact of life in Iraq; it is Iraq’s major resource. Iraq is dependent on oil for much of its budget, and virtually all of its development. But this was not true for much of Nuri’s career. Substantial oil production and export did not really begin until after World War II . Moreover, Iraq’s oil was then under the control of foreign, Western, oil companies and the management of Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) was British. The main issue Nuri faced in the 1950s was getting a larger share of profits from oil companies for development. In 1952,  a 50-50 split on profits was negotiated resulting in larger revenues for Iraq. Under foreign influence and advice, a Development Board was established; it was led by 6 members, two of whom were British and American experts, on how to spend the money They opted for a strategy of long term growth—especially in the agricultural sector. dams, flood control, irrigation, and investment in basic transportation, communication and infrastructure. This paid good dividends in the long term, but there were  two problems with it. There was no attempt at social and political reform in a period of rising maldistribution of wealth. The poorer elements of the population, especially urban migrants from the south, like those in the area now called Sadr City, did not see benefits, such as housing, jobs and education in the short term.  And the agricultural strategy benefited the landed class, supporting the regime in parliament, not the newly educated urban middle class, the chief opponents of the regime, who favored land reform, rapid industrialization, and an end to foreign control of oil. This ultimately played a role in the regime’s overthrow in 1958.

Maliki is in a different position. Iraq now owns its oil resources, Saddam nationalized the industry in 1972, and has control over production and management, but Iraq is now a rentier state, dependent on oil for its budget and development. Events of the last few decades have greatly eroded Iraq’s  capacity to produce and export; Iraq’s oil cadre is gone; its infrastructure and technology are badly damaged. The issue for Maliki is how to repair this damage as quickly as possible, and to build the long term infrastructure. For this, he needs foreign technology, expertise and training. The question is how to get this without giving foreigners ownership, control, and the kind of influence to which his population has a real aversion, not without justification. But the terms for foreign oil companies and the domestic situation they face in Iraq, insecurity, lack of a cadre, corruption, is holding this process back.  In addition, Maliki faces a new problem Nuri did not have, Kurdish separatism. The Kurds want ownership and control over oil in their territory to give them a separate income stream, resisted by the central government. To attract foreign investment, Kurds are willing to give foreign oil companies a better deal than the central government, including  “production sharing” agreements, an arrangement rejected by the central government, and other OPEC countries. This dispute prevents the passage of a uniform hydrocarbon law, which is slowing oil development in both areas. However, in general, oil exports are a good news story for Iraq. They have increased, Iraq’s exports now surpass Iran, and Maliki has money to spend. However, along with more money has come increased corruption and rising expectations. As a result, Maliki now faces Nuri’s old problem of spending the money wisely, and in the short term, fast enough to keep his population satisfied.
Sa'id at ceremony marking the opening of Iraq's parliament, 1942. Like Maliki, Sa'id was able to manipulate a weak opposition to his rule (Library of Congress)
5. Like Sa’id, Maliki has benefited from having a weak opposition. What were the political forces like in Iraq under the British and Royalist period, how was Sa’id able to manipulate them, and how are they similar to today’s political scene?

In British-Royalist period, the monarch had considerable power. The King could dismiss the cabinet, and put in another, and Iraq had revolving cabinets. But similar to today, Iraq had elected parliaments and relative freedom of the press and assembly. The 1950s were a lively intellectual period, and several significant opposition parties took shape: A nationalist party, Istiqlal-independence wanted to get rid of the British treaty, and then the Baghdad Pact;  a Leftist party, National Democratic  Party concentrated on domestic reform, freer elections, an end to maldistribution of wealth. More extreme were underground parties like the Ba’th and the Iraq Communist Party (ICP). But this opposition had weaknesses; its stronghold was among the urban, educated intelligentsia. It dominated the media,  but had inadequate organization and few roots in the countryside, which was more conservative and religious. The same is true today. The urban, liberal, more secular parties are concentrated in Baghdad or major cities; they function through parliament and the media, but they have less influence in the rural areas or even among poorer urban migrants like those in Sadr City, although the Sadrist trend has certainly mobilized the poor and underprivileged in both urban and rural areas.

But there are several differences with the present situation. Nuri faced little overt opposition on the ethnic and sectarian front, all significant parties were secular, and cabinets increasingly included more Shi’a and Kurds as well as Sunnis. Opposition in the army was the main problem for Nuri; he also had to deal with labor strikes and public demonstrations, especially among students. Nuri and others, dealt with organized public unrest through declaring martial law, arresting key leaders, detaining numerous “perpetrators”, closing down newspapers, and by “fixing” and manipulating elections in one way or another to get support in parliament. Many times demonstrators were killed or injured in clashes with police. The best example of these tactics is the two elections of 1954. The first, controlled by the regent, was relatively free; it  brought a number of opposition leaders, including Leftists, to parliament. But, the British Treaty was due to expire in 1957, and had to be replaced with some other security arrangement. The result was the Baghdad Pact. The Regent felt only Nuri could handle the opposition that would result. Nuri insisted on dismissal of the parliament. A series of decrees  were then issued which permitted the Council of Ministers to deport people convicted of communism, anarchism, and working for a foreign government, and strip them of citizenship. It became an offense to join movements like the Peace Partisans, the Democratic Youth and others, the NGOs of today, and professional societies were forbidden to engage in activities that disturbed public order. A new election was held that was so “managed”  the result was called “the unopposed parliament”. Thereafter, Iraq settled down to rule by the army and police. This was a turning point for the regime.

Maliki has a more difficult situation today because the institutions of state, army, bureaucracy, parliament, are still new and weak, and he faces a country divided on ethnic and sectarian grounds. There is no monarch to balance the situation, and President Talabani, who previously acted as mediator, is seriously ill. But like Nuri, Maliki has an army, an open press, elections, and parliament to deal with. He is employing similar tactics with these. He has outmaneuvered his opposition in parliament, undermined independent institutions, the judicial system, the election commission and central bank, and of course, put his supporters at the top of the military. He has used “patronage” and cabinet appointments to split the opposition, and strong arm tactics where that fails, such as the arrest and trial of Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, and the attempted arrest of former Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi.
PM Sa'id (left) talks with Crown Prince Abdullah, 1957 (right). Unlike Maliki Sa'id had to deal with some powerful groups within Iraq such as the monarchy
6. You mentioned the arrest warrants for Hashemi and Issawi. Sa’id used the security forces and martial law against his opponents as well. You think there’s a difference between the two however, can you say how, and what you think overall about how the two ruled Iraq.

There are many similarities between the two, but the differences are also significant, particularly in their circumstances and backgrounds. Nuri was a professional army officer who became a civilian politician. He was never the only prime minister available; by the 1950s, he was just the most seasoned and experienced. Nuri had counterbalancing forces to help him, a monarchy with a degree of power to step in; a real strategic alliance with the West, and stronger and more professional government institutions. He did not have to rely on sectarian identity for support since Iraq had developed a greater sense of identity especially by the 1950s, and secularism was predominant in public life. Maliki faces different circumstances. The foreign power behind the scenes, the U.S., has virtually no military presence and diminishing influence; there is no monarch; the military, police and bureaucracy are new and fragile, and the sense of “Iraqi” identity is rapidly eroding. Maliki faces a society polarized and divided along ethnic and sectarian lines and politicians, notably himself, appeal to these communal identities for votes. He  governs through a cabinet representing not only ethnic and sectarian components, but virtually all political blocs, who treat their ministries like independent “fiefs”. Another difference is that Iraq under the monarchy, had not yet lived under a real police state, as Maliki’s has. After decades of a Stalinesque regime under Saddam, with multiple intelligence organizations and constant spying on its population, with brutality as a method of governing, sometimes exercised on a mass scale, the population has become inured to violence, prone to conspiracy theories, and has developed an inbred suspicion and distrust of others, as well as all government authority. Maliki himself is a product of this system. He spent most of his adult life in an underground party, and in exile in countries like Iran and Syria, also police states. He now has to function under a much more open system with a democratic constitution and real elections. Not surprisingly he has fallen back on what he knows: making sure of military support; surrounding himself with trusted advisors and party loyalists, his son Ahmad is one of them; arrests of those he sees as “terrorists” and potential insurgents; wide-spread detentions and reported use of torture. Moreover, unlike Nuri, Maliki came to office little known, and has yet to develop a public persona. He is taciturn and lacks Nuri’s personal touch. However, Maliki is nothing if not persistent, and has now developed a canny ability to outmaneuver his rivals in parliament and the political sphere. But he has gone too far in arresting and issuing arrest warrants for Hashemi and Issawi, and in stonewalling the Sunni protests in a charged sectarian situation. It is too early to make any predictions on Maliki, or Iraq’s future, but it is well to remember that Nuri’s well- known success as Iraq’s longest lasting prime minister, off and on, was finally swept away by the very army he had nurtured and by widespread popular support from the new middle class with whom he had refused to share power and had little rapport.


1. AK News, “Sadrist Current: Al-Maliki must be rejected for the country’s interests,” 8/12/10

2. Sullivan, Marisa Cochrane, “Iraq’s Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 2,” Institute for the Study of War, 12/23/11


Agence France Presse, “Iraqi Kurd politician warns of ‘ethnic cleansing,’” 5/28/12

AK News, “Sadrist Current: Al-Maliki must be rejected for the country’s interests,” 8/12/10

Gutman, Roy, “With U.S. troops hardly gone, Iraq’s government is coming apart,” McClatchy Newspapers, 1/22/12

Marr, Phebe, The Modern History of Iraq, Boulder and Oxford: Westview Press, 2004

Sullivan, Marisa Cochrane, “Iraq’s Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 2,” Institute for the Study of War, 12/23/11

Tripp, Charles, A History of Iraq, Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, Sao Paulo, Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2008


Unknown said...

In my mind I had the comparison between Maliki and Said for the last few months, I was happy to read this interview.
The essence of my investigation goes like this: Faisal I brought with him the beginnings of state institutions but did not live long enough to see their full functions. The idea behind the institutions is to seek stability of the state from the inside. Nuri Said did no adhere totally to Faisal's philosophy, he sought stability from the outside. Maliki also sought stability from the outside, not from the elections or institutions. The interpretation that Maliki is truly against Iran's influence is nonsense, he depends on Iran for stability. The interview also states: It is too early to make any predictions on Maliki.. Sounds like an excuse for inaction.
Faisal Kadri

Joel Wing said...

Maliki has a long history of not liking Iran. When he was in exile there Tehran tried to take over Dawa and that was the reason why he left for Syria. That's something he's always remembered. I also think that he is an Iraqi nationalist, and doesn't want other countries controlling Iraq. He's tried to play Iran off of the U.S. That's obviously a lot harder now that the U.S. doesn't have a strong presence or interest in the country.