Nouri al-Maliki has been the prime minister of Iraq since 2006. His reign has been marked by increasing controversy as he has reneged on promises, and taken on his rivals using the security forces and corruption charges. His approach to government can in part be explained by his past. He joined Iraq’s first Shiite Islamist organization the Dawa Party in the 1960s, which was then an underground movement. He was eventually forced into exile in 1979, because of his activities, and became a leader in the armed struggle against Saddam Hussein in both Iran and Syria. After the 2003 invasion, he served as an underling within the party until he was picked as a compromise candidate for the premiership between the rival Shiite religious parties. Most of his early history was unknown outside of Iraq until a recent article by Ned Parker and Raheem Salman in the Spring 2013 issue of the World Policy Journal. Here is an interview with Mr. Parker about Maliki’s life, and how it has shaped him as the prime minister of Iraq. Ned can be followed on Twitter at @nedparker1
|(World Policy Journal)|
1. Today, there are many in the Middle East and the West that claim Maliki is a tool of the Iranians. In fact, his family had a long history with Iraqi nationalism beginning with his grandfather and father. What positions did his family take, and do you think that Maliki still holds onto their ideals?
Maliki’s grandfather Mohammed Abu Mahesin served as an education minister in the 1920s and participated in the revolt against the British occupation in 1920. Maliki’s father was an Arab nationalist, and described by his son as a Nasserist. Maliki is proud of his family history and his grandfather’s example. He sees himself as following in his father and grandfather’s nationalist tradition. At the same time, Maliki is also a creature of Shiite revolutionary politics. He turned to political Islam and the Dawa Party after the Arab world’s failure in the 1967 war with Israel. His own suffering under Saddam Hussein made him a staunch defender of his religious sect. One could argue his grandfather represented the different strains of Maliki’s political beliefs. His grandfather was a nationalist, a respected tribal figure and also a liaison with the Shiite clergy in the shrine city of Najaf. Over time, Maliki has mixed and matched Shiite Islamist and nationalist stances, all of which serve his belief that he is Iraq’s savior, the one who rescued the country from civil war and the only one capable of holding the nation together.
2. You mentioned the 1967 Arab-Israeli War as a prominent event in Maliki’s history that led him to the Dawa Party. What other issues drew him to it?
Maliki grew up in an atmosphere blending rural conservatism, a pride in tribal identity, nationalist fervor, and religious piety. Even Maliki’s father, who was an Arab nationalist, was a practicing Muslim. The teenage Maliki looked to political Islam in order to understand Israel’s defeat of Arab states in the 1967 war. The loss had shocked him and he would later refer to the war in a 2010 state television interview as “the defeat of the Islamic nation”. It was at this time, Maliki was recruited to the Dawa Party. He joined at his local mosque, according to his family. Maliki was the equivalent of local aristocracy. His family was prominent because of his grandfather’s political history and tribal and religious affiliations. Dawa members asked him to study at a university in Baghdad, associated with Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir Sadr, one of the Shiite world’s leading clergy and a founder of the Dawa Party. Sadr’s teachings on Islam and his vision of a strong vibrant modern Islamic state captured the imagination of the young Maliki.
3. Maliki spent almost 25 years in exile. What forced him to flee in 1979, what happened to his family after he left, and how did he get revenge after he returned in 2003?
Maliki fled as part of the larger crackdown against the Dawa Party and Shiite Islamists in 1979 after Saddam Hussein became president and consolidated power. Maliki escaped Iraq with police on his trail, and several of his friends already detained or killed. After Maliki left, over the course of the next decade, 67 of his family members were killed. His village was put under watch by state security and his relatives lived as outcasts. In an interview last year on state television, Maliki recalled staging a funeral for victims of the Baath in his home region of Hindaya in 2003 shortly after he ended his exile. In his mock funeral address, Maliki had publicly called for reprisals against Baathists who had killed or caused suffering. Soon after his speech, some Baathists, implicated in the persecution of local Shiites, were killed by vigilantes, including a former police commander, who had been associated with the 1979 attempt to arrest Maliki. Maliki expressed no remorse for the reprisals that took place in the early period after Saddam’s fall. “Those who didn’t harm anyone are still working in the area,” he explained in a 2012 state television interview. “People differentiate between the good and the bad.”
After becoming prime minister, Maliki alternatively advocated hardline politics against the Baath Party and other times sounded more conciliatory. But in difficult times, he often fell back on his image as a strongman and defender of Iraq’s Shiites.
4. While in exile, Maliki went back and forth between Syria and Iran organizing militant cells to fight against the Baathist regime, and ran into major problems with both governments. Tehran for example, demanded the loyalty of the Iraqis. What was Maliki’s position on this, and what does this say about those who claim that Maliki is a tool of Iran?
Maliki’s history with the Iranians has been fraught. He long ago gave up any illusions about Iran’s intentions towards Iraq. As a young man, Maliki was inspired by the Iranians in their 1979 revolution. Khomeini had lived in the shrine city of Najaf and, at the time, the Iraqis in Dawa saw kindred spirits in Iran’s Islamists. But when Maliki and others from Dawa took refuge in Iran after 1979 and many, including Maliki, grew disillusioned. They felt Iran wanted to control them and viewed Iraqis as inferior. Maliki watched Iran prod the splintering of the Dawa Party, recruiting members for alternative groups, and saw friends arrested. According to a classified U.S. report, Maliki left Iran at one point fearful of assassination or arrest by the Iranians. Maliki has not forgotten his past, but whether he likes it or not, Iran is a major player in Iraq’s politics and to survive and to stay in power he must deal with them, but this doesn’t make him a tool of the Iranians. He has some nostalgia for the 1979 Iranian revolution and more trust for the Iranians than he does for hostile Sunni Arab countries, but Maliki can never forget the way Iranians tried to subjugate him to their goals.
5. After the Gulf War, Maliki was sent to Saudi Arabia to meet with Shiites who had fled after the failed 1991 uprising in southern Iraq. How did that shape his opinion of the Americans and Shiite victimhood?
Maliki and other Shiite Islamists saw the Americans as betraying the Shiites in their 1991 uprising, They believed the Americans consciously supported Saddam in crushing the Islamists because U.S. officials saw Iraq’s Shiites as pro-Iranian Islamic extremists. U.S. officials had to labor after its 2003 invasion of Iraq to overcome this perception of the past which was widely held among Shiite Islamists.
6. After 2003, Maliki eventually gained a series of positions in the new Iraqi government. What positions did he become known for?
Maliki built up his reputation after the war as a Shiite Islamist enforcer. He served in the deBaathifcation committee that was formed in 2003 to root out Baathists from government. Later in parliament, he served on the committee writing the constitution, where he also defended Shiite Islamist concerns. In addition, Maliki sat on the parliament’s security committee, where he was a vocal critic of Sunni militants, and was perceived as a political patron of Shiite militias, who were battling Al Qaeda and other Sunni hardliners. He didn’t hesitate to criticize American military operations against Shiite groups.
7. In 2006, Maliki ascended to the premiership. The Americans were hoping that he would be better than his predecessor Ibrahim al-Jaafari, also from Dawa, who was blamed for spurring on the civil war. Maliki was not neutral however. What did he think of the sectarian fighting, and how did that lead to his use of the security forces and protection of Shiite militias?
Maliki looked to protect Iraq’s Shiite majority from a return of the Baath party and to stave off Al Qaeda. He saw the Sadrists and Badr militias as Shiite paramilitary forces defending Iraq’s Shiite elite from Sunni extremists. Maliki frustrated the Americans by rarely sanctioning operations in Shiite militia strongholds. He blocked U.S. forces from arresting security commanders, who were abetting Shiite militants, and militia leaders. He pushed instead for his commanders to go after Sunnis he suspected of militancy and often wanted to go after Sunnis Americans saw as potential allies. This changed in the spring of 2008, as Iraq’s civil war receded. Maliki decided to move against his sometime partner and rival Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia because he now viewed the lawlessness associated with armed Shiite groups as a threat to his rule and the state itself. No longer were Maliki’s interests just limited to combatting Baathists and Sunni Islamic extremists.
8. The prime minister has surrounded himself with a close circle of Dawa members. Who are some of these people, and what roles do they play in the government?
Maliki has surrounded himself with loyalists to push his agenda. From the fall of his predecessor Jaafari, and the decline of Dawa in exile, Maliki learned that the only way to guard against plots and maintain authority was to have loyalists handle key folders. In Maliki’s case, this has brought to the prime minister’s office and its security branches a coterie of family members and longtime Dawa members, who suffered under Saddam. Among those Maliki relied upon were his son Ahmed, who would serve as a deputy chief of staff. In his father’s second term, Ahmed became arguably the most powerful in the prime minister’s office with the power to command special army units, loyal to Maliki. Another battle-tested ally was Abu Mujahid, a friend and former driver for Maliki in exile in Damascus, who was named the prime minister’s protocol secretary. Others were Abu [Ammar] Ali al-Basri, the son of a Dawa member killed by Saddam, who ran the prime minister’s own special intelligence service, and General Farouk Araji, a colonel in Saddam’s military, and former Dawa sympathizer who Maliki used to give direct orders to the Defense and Interior Ministries.
9. Since Maliki has been in power he has consistently turned against his allies and coalition members starting with Moqtada al-Sadr in 2008 with the Charge of the Knights campaign to the present day with Iyad Allawi and his Iraqiya party. Why do you think the prime minister has gone after people he was supposed to work with or relied upon?
Maliki has witnessed the politics of betrayal his whole life. In Iraq, to lose in politics often means death. There is no such thing as a true ally or friend. He can only see a comparable power represented in Sadr or Allawi as a potential threat that for him will result in in his own death or exile. It is this conspiratorial mindset, and winner take all mentality, that has hindered him from putting Iraq on the road to being a stable and prosperous democracy.
10. At the end of your article you wrote that there was hope that Maliki could change the way he rules. Could you explain why?
Maliki harbors ambitions to be a true national hero. This is a core belief for him. He cannot accept the idea of failure. He sees himself as a defender of the country’s Shiites but also of all Iraqis. He has veered in his rule from being overtly sectarian to attempts at compromise and bridge building with the country’s Sunnis. His impulses are authoritarian from his history as a clandestine revolutionary. If he sees pursuing more conciliatory and consensual politics as benefitting his political fortunes and ensuring his security, he could pursue the path of national reconciliation. Perhaps, it is too late for him. Maliki has made too many enemies. But Maliki has always proved himself tenacious and a survivor. He can never be counted out.
Parker, Ned and Salman, Raheem, “Notes From The Underground: The Rise of Nouri al-Maliki,” World Policy Journal, Spring 2013