Monday, June 25, 2012

Is Iraq’s Prime Minister Becoming A Dictator? An Interview With Kirk Sowell Of Inside Iraqi Politics

Kirk Sowell runs Uticensis Risk Services. He combs through Arabic sources for news on Iraq, and compiles the information in his twice-monthly Inside Iraqi Politics newsletter, one of the most informative sources available. Below is an interview with Sowell on the hot topic within Iraq today, whether Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is becoming an autocrat. One of the main concerns of analysts and Iraqi politicians has been the premier’s attempts to politicize the security forces. That is the main point of the conversation with Sowell, but it also covers the political and judicial situation, and what are Maliki’s main motivations. This is one part of a series of interviews with leading Iraq analysts on the topic of the prime minister.

PM Maliki at the opening ceremony of the Defense University for Military Studies in Baghdad June 17, 2012. There have been many reports that the premier has tried to politicize the security forces (Reuters)
1.  One of the main arguments made by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s critics is that he has politicized the Iraqi security forces. Is there any validity behind this claim?

There are numerous examples, which confirm this. Three examples: one, use of the Office of the Commander-in-Chief, Maliki’s military staff, to sideline the Army senior staff; two, the operations commands, which report to Maliki, have no legal basis and often make warrantless arrests; and three, the massively-staffed Interior Ministry, which is run by a close Dawa Party ally, and also makes warrantless arrests.

Furthermore, he has done it in a way that has helped seal their loyalty to him. A lot of Maliki’s senior officers are former Baathists he has protected from deBaathification. He doesn’t have the legal authority to do that, but he’s done it anyway, and it means many would fear for their lives and careers if a Shiite Islamist with a more hardline stance on deBaathification were to take office.

2. Since the 2010 parliamentary elections, Maliki has gained greater control over the security apparatus, because he was made acting head of the Interior, Defense, and National Security Ministries. If people were concerned about his use of the security forces, why did they agree to give him so much control over them?

To be candid, I don’t know what they were thinking. It is truly stunning in fact, given the long struggle to prevent his reelection and all the talk from the Sadrists and Kurds about limiting the prime minister’s power, that they did this. It was a colossal and really inexplicable misjudgment.

3.  Who was supposed to get each one of those ministries, and why haven’t they ever been appointed?

Iyad Allawi was supposed to nominate the Defense Minister, and the Shiite Islamist bloc would nominate the Interior Minister. That was the agreement as both sides described it in December 2010 when the government was formed. Maliki has engaged in revisionism, saying later that the agreement was to have the defense nominee be a Sunni Arab, allowing him to just appoint one close to himself. As for why, it is kind of a game that Maliki played last year. Maliki rejected all of Allawi’s nominees except one, and that one he submitted to parliament was after he publicly broke with Allawi and Allawi disowned him. The Sadrists have worked with Allawi to veto Maliki’s choice at interior.

4.  Maliki actually got rid of the National Security Ministry rather quietly. Could you explain how he did that?

He did it by fiat. No written order has ever surfaced, nor even a press release announcing it. It was created when Iyad Allawi was prime minister and never established by statute, so there is no reason why legally he couldn’t abolish it. What is odd is that he tried to get parliament to do so in July 2011, and it refused, and so he just did it anyway, but quietly, and then it was acknowledged only later. According to parliamentary minutes, the ministry’s abolition was first mentioned there on November 26, 2011, and in passing, by a Maliki parliamentarian, as if it were no big deal. This means there is no parliamentary confirmation process for overseeing the intelligence services. It is now called the National Security Advisory.

5.  Who are the acting Defense and Interior Ministers and how are they connected to Maliki?

Acting Defense Minister Sadoun al-Dulaimi belongs to the Sunni Arab Accordance Front, which has long been a relatively Maliki-friendly Sunni party. He served as Defense Minister under Ibrahim al-Jaafari and has no political base. The de facto Interior Minister is Deputy Interior Minister Adnan al-Asadi, who is a card-carrying member of the Dawa Party. He held the same position in Maliki’s first government, and then was elected to parliament in 2010. He resigned on Maliki’s instructions in June 2011, and began running Interior informally for Maliki shortly thereafter.

6. One way the premier has been able to assert himself within the security forces is to appoint commanders. In a recent issue of your Inside Iraqi Politics, you said that he was actually doing that for three separate reasons, could you explain those?

Well, there are three reasons given by different parties. One, by Asadi, is just protocol – it is standard procedure to rotate commanders. Two, others close to Maliki say the changes are related to issues of competency, given continued security failures. Three, Maliki’s rivals say it is to implant his personal control.

7. Could another reason why the prime minister is changing commanders within the security forces be the fact that he is trying to "coup proof" the government?  In most of the Middle East, the primary concern of the security forces is to repress internal opponents, and ensure the regime's survival. Is Iraq falling back into that pattern?

I believe that is a reason, and indeed if you look at the relatively small size of the army compared to the Interior Ministry, the latter is three times larger, this is exactly how other Arab countries have their security forces structured. More than one in every fifty Iraqis works for the Interior Ministry. It would be as if, adjusting for population, in the U.S. the FBI and the marshal service had over six million armed personnel.

8. One way Maliki has been able to do all this is because parliament has never passed any laws to regulate the security forces. What happened to that legislation?

The legislation is still there, in fact the Defense and Interior Ministry bills have passed an initial reading. The fault here is parliament’s, or more specifically, the parties, their leaders and MPs. Maliki only controls 87 of 325 MPs; the other parties could override him if they’d just show up, but lots of them, especially from Allawi’s side, just don’t attend. Allawi himself is a member of parliament, but lives in Jordan and almost never attends.

9. There is a law for the provincial police forces under the 2008 Provincial Powers Law that gives the governors control over things like police chiefs. How has Maliki been able to get around that legislation?

Article 31 of that law gives governors “direct authority over local security… with the exception of army units.” A couple of other provisions provide more qualified authority to the provincial government, one says that the local security plan must be formulated “in coordination with” the federal government, and another says that when the governor appoints a new chief of police this appointment must be in accordance with Interior Ministry standards. What Maliki has done in practice is turn this inside out. He sometimes consults with local authorities, but often just imposes a police chief when consultation breaks down.

How Maliki gets away with this is a bit more complicated, but it essentially comes down to using all the levers of pressure he has and not taking “no” for an answer. In the Shiite provinces, only two of the ten governors are from his rivals, and all across the country they are almost entirely dependent on Baghdad for money. In addition to political and financial levers, one must bear in mind that councilmembers have been arrested before simply for criticizing federal policy, and that makes it easier to understand how he seems to always get his way. In some cases, Maliki will appoint his preferred candidate as “acting chief,” despite having no authority to do so, and then just keep applying pressure until the council gives in.

10. As early as 2009 there have been reports that Maliki has used the security forces against his opponents. Do you have any examples of that?

I’d go back to 2006, when he federalized the police in Basra to take on the base of the Fadhila Party, a rival Shiite party. Then in 2007 he started taking over the police in provinces controlled by the Iran-backed Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), and then in 2008 he went after Sadr with the army. The difference then was that under Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) Order 71 he had the authority to take over the police, and frankly, Fadhila, ISCI and Sadr all were running militias, so they deserved it. The security forces have been deeply politicized since 2005 under Jaafari; it’s not like they were ever not politicized.

There have also been many claims from Allawi and his Sunni allies of illegal arrests; you may be thinking of a couple of prominent cases in Diyala prior to the 2010 elections. The problem in all those cases is the lack of transparency; there is no publicly available information related to arrest warrants, no public trials. In fact few get trials, most I’ve seen reports on are arrested, and then later released. The point appears to just be intimidation.

11. Could you speak on Maliki’s influence over the judiciary?

The jurisprudence of this Supreme Court, which was founded in 2005, can be divided into two periods. One is from 2005-2009, during which time the Court made some principled decisions, which were controversial, but which did not threaten the executive, such as by affirming the right of parliamentarians to travel to Israel, and invalidating electoral rules passed by parliament. When it came to anything really high stakes, they simply refused to take the case. The second period runs from early 2010 to the present, in which the Court has had a perfect pro-Maliki record. Some of these decisions have been defensible on their face, and some have been absurd. The main two areas of impact have been the Court's role in letting the Shiite bloc and the Kurds violate the constitution in 2010 and take as long as they needed to make their deal [over a new ruling coalition], and also two decisions have which weakened parliament and the independent commissions vis-a-vis the executive.

How exactly Maliki managed this is not clear, but the common denominator is Chief Justice Medhat al-Mahmoud, who heads both the Supreme Court and the Judicial High Council, which appoints the judges for all lower courts. Mahmoud had a long career in the Saddam-era justice ministry, and appears to have accommodated himself to the new system.

12. Can parliament limit Maliki's power in any way, and if so, why hasn't it?

Yes it could, or at least it could put Maliki on the spot by passing legislation and forcing Maliki to either accept or defy it. It hasn't been able to do so, because of divisions between the other parties, and because so many just don't show up in parliament. Attendance averages 60-65 percent and is rarely above 75 percent.

13. Iraq’s political parties have been pretty ineffective in limiting Maliki’s expansion of power. Have any rivals emerged within Maliki’s own State of Law or Dawa Party that might challenge him in the future?

I would say none that don't have so much baggage as to be seriously handicapped. Within Dawa, Ali al-Adeeb, the Minister of Higher Education, is known as the head of the "Iranian wing" of the party, and there have been numerous reports over the years of barely concealed competition with Maliki. His following outside of Dawa is very limited, and indeed negative, precisely because he is viewed as close to Iran.

In State of Law more broadly, Deputy Prime Minister for Energy Affairs Hussein al-Shahristani appeared for some time to perhaps be able to do so. The Electricity and Oil Ministries' problems, combined with Shahristani's incessant conflicts with provincial officials over centralization, have taken the shine off. Even more there is a report by parliament's energy committee on the electricity contracts scandal, which members indicate is going to implicate Shahristani, and State of Law appears to be preventing it from coming to the floor. There was a session of parliament on April 23, which failed quorum, and I believe it was for this reason.

14. Iraq is set for two more elections in the next few years, one is for the provincial councils, and another is for parliament. What do you think they will look like, and do you believe they offer a chance to weaken or replace Maliki?

I'll answer the second part of the question first. The answer is yes, I think they'll be open enough to offer voters a chance to at least weaken if not replace Maliki, because the other Shiite parties are strong and organized enough to prevent widespread fraud. Unfortunately, the most likely alternative to a strong Maliki is likely going to be a weak Maliki even more dependent on the Sadrists. Maliki and Sadr are the only two Shiite leaders who really appear to have organized political machines throughout the Shiite provinces. Iyad Allawi's secular Shiite Wifaq party hasn't been able to maintain what organization it had, and Allawi himself seems to spend more time talking to Sunni monarchs than Shiite voters.

In the Sunni provinces it is much less clear cut. The Sunni Arab and secular Shiite parties alike suffer one splinter after another, hardly a month goes by without a new party announcement, which splits that population into another faction. I don't feel I have enough data to make any kind of forecast, other than to say I expect the Sunnis to collectively be quite weak.

15. Some U.S. commentators have said that if the U.S. kept troops in Iraq they would be able to limit Maliki’s use of the security forces. What do you think of that?

There was surely some inhibition, and the timing of the warrant for Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi, right after U.S. troops withdrew, supports that. Two points argue against overemphasizing that factor. One, as noted above, there are many previous examples of security actions, which appear political. Two, Maliki himself tried to have the U.S. presence renewed, it was the Sadrists and Sunni Arabs who blocked it.

16. In your opinion is Maliki becoming an autocrat?

Yes, but don’t think Saddam Hussein, think Vladimir Putin. I’d say Maliki is presently about 80 percent through with the construction of his own “power vertical.” If he completes it, Iraq will still be a mostly free society in the sense that people can travel freely, get access to information if they make the effort to do so, and compete for spoils and a portion of power within the Maliki system. Maliki’s dominance of the security services, state media, the judiciary, the anti-corruption watchdog and the pillars of the financial system will give it a very “managed democracy” kind of feel. Parliament, the electoral commission and the Central Bank are the three institutions, which remain independent. Maliki has used the Supreme Court to weaken the first, and is currently pressuring the second and third.

17. What do you think is his main motivation for trying to control the security forces?

Maliki spent over two decades before 2003 working his way up the ladder in a clandestine organization with a death warrant on his head, living first in Iran and then in Syria. This left him trusting no one who was not a close ally. As with energy policy, where he has resisted forming a national oil and gas commission, which would weaken control by close allies, Maliki has resisted the formation of an institutionalized security structure. Leaders who expect to be leaving power soon know they have an interest in building institutions so they will be protected when they leave. That Maliki has staunchly resisted such institutionalization should tell us something.


International Crisis Group, “Loose Ends: Iraq’s Security Forces Between U.S. Drawdown And Withdrawal,” 10/26/10

Salmoni, Barak, “Responsible Partnership; The Iraqi National Security Sector after 2011,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, May 2011

Sowell, Kirk, “Inside Iraqi Politics No. 37,” 5/1/12


Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi said...


Kirk says:

***Maliki himself tried to have the U.S. presence renewed, it was the Sadrists and Sunni Arabs who blocked it.***

I am not so sure about this analysis of the question of extending the U.S. presence. I thought Maliki was able to organise a national consensus in the summer of last year (excluding the Sadrists) whereby a small contingent force of U.S. troops would be allowed to stay under the guise of 'trainers', and as a concession to public and general lawmaker sentiment, they would not be granted immunity. Thus the immunity issue proved to be the main stumbling block over which negotiations broke down.

Joel Wing said...

Aymenn yes Maliki and some parties supported the idea of American trainers staying in Iraq past the end of 2011, but with no immunity. The Sadrists however steadfastly refused any American presence whatsoever, and helped sink any plans for the US to stay.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi said...

Right, the Sadrists were indeed opposed to any American presence whatsoever, but I've not seen evidence that their opposition proved the decisive factor in the breakdown of negotiations. Already by summer 2011 it seems they had been excluded from the decision-making regarding a troop extension, as all other factions (including Sunni Arabs like Mutlaq and Hashimi) declared that U.S. 'trainers' would be needed beyond 2011.

My understanding is that the breakdown arose as the U.S. refused to compromise on its insistence that its troops be granted immunity because that is the legal status for its troops in all other foreign bases. Following this, attempts to find loopholes failed and so the Obama administration resigned itself to a pullout by the end of the year, with ostensible reassurances from Maliki that U.S. troops could return at some point in the future to provide further training.

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