Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been in full campaign mode for several months now anticipating the January 2010 parliamentary elections. The themes he is promoting are largely the same ones he used in the 2009 provincial vote: security, services, nationalism, and one new one, getting the Americans to leave Iraq. After Maliki’s State of Law List rode to victory in the governorates’ balloting it seemed like Maliki was assured of returning to the prime ministership using these issues. Since then, Maliki has run into a series of problems in his run for re-election, but he may still have one ace up his sleeve.
After Maliki’s crackdown on the Sadrists beginning in March 2008, the Prime Minister seized the limelight of Iraqi politics. He claimed that he had secured Iraq by getting rid of the Mahdi Army militia. This of course, ignored the work of the U.S. forces and the Surge, but he was more than willing to take credit for their sacrifices. His move gained support from both Shiites and Sunnis, and the name of his new list, State of Law, showed his new position. Attacks and deaths across Iraq took a large drop in the run up and aftermath of the January 2009 elections as well. By the summer Maliki was calling for the removal of blast walls along major thoroughfares in the capital.
The Baghdad bombings however, smashed Maliki’s successful campaign. On August 19, 2009 two truck bombs struck Iraq’s Foreign and Finance Ministries in Baghdad. 101 were killed and 1203 were wounded. These were the most devastating attacks since 2008. The Prime Minister was forced to rescind his order on the blast walls, and called for a renewed effort to secure the country. The bombings exposed the false sense of security that Maliki had helped create. The insurgents are a shell of their former selves, and are not a threat to overthrow the government, but they are still quite capable of spreading terror in Iraq’s major cities. In response, Maliki has blamed Syria, while the State of Law governor of Baghdad has accused Saudi Arabia of complicity in the bombings. This was the first chink in Maliki’s armor.
Another issue Maliki ran on in the 2009 vote was for improved services. The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and Sadrists controlled most of the south and Baghdad after the 2005 elections, but did a poor job running them. Maliki promised to rectify this. The problem was that Iraq’s 2009 budget was drastically slashed with the drop in oil prices due to the world recession. The 2008 budget in comparison was a record high due to the skyrocketing price of petroleum that year. There was no way the provinces were going to get more money than the previous year then. Not only that, but the old provincial governments signed a large number of contracts for development projects in 2008 due to their growing budgets, which rolled over to 2009 and tied up all the money available for the new governorate councils. As reported before, most of the provinces are reporting deficits this year as a result. Maliki has tried to deflect the matter by blaming his opponents for the lack of services.
Finally, the Prime Minister has linked his nationalist stance with the withdrawal of the American forces. Maliki seems over confident in the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces. Before the passage of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) he was hoping that the Defense and Interior Ministers would say that the Iraqi forces were ready to assume complete control of internal security, but instead they said they needed at least three more years. He went ahead with the SOFA that set a December 31, 2011 pullout date for the Americans. In the implementation law it called for a referendum, originally set for July 30, 2009. That didn’t happen, but Maliki is now pushing for that to occur in conjunction with the 2010 election. That would give Maliki a powerful tool to run with, as he is not as strong as he once was with security and services, and most Iraqis want the Americans to leave. It’s also helpful that the some of his main opponents, the ruling Kurdish parties and the Iraqi Islamic Party want to have the U.S. stay to be a guarantor against Maliki using the security forces against them. Since Iraqi nationalism is on the rise, it will be hard for any of these parties to run for the SOFA, and if they do, Maliki is likely to ravage them for doing so.
As of now Maliki is not in as strong a position as he was after the 2009 vote. Iraqi perceptions of the security situation have seemingly changed after the Baghdad bombings. The central and provincial governments are incapable of improving services with the large budget cuts. In both instances, Maliki is blaming others, foreigners and the opposition respectively, to deflect attention away from his own shortcomings. What the Prime Minister still has going for him is Iraqi nationalism and growing anti-Americanism. For now, Maliki is still at the center of Iraqi politics. He’s also much better known, more popular with the electorate, and has a clear message compared to his opponents. Who for example, will run the new National Iraqi Alliance? Will anyone see them as anything but a sectarian Shiite coalition without the Prime Minister? The problem is he doesn’t hold a plurality, let alone a majority of votes. With five months to go before the parliamentary elections, plenty of things could change, and that’s symbolic of the state of Iraqi politics at this period in time.
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