Why Nuri al Maliki Matters:
Nouri or Nuri al Maliki is Iraq’s prime minister and the leader of the Shiite Islamic Al Dawa Party. The Bush administration considered Maliki an easily malleable political novice when the Iraqi parliament picked him to lead the country in April 2006. He’s proven anything but. Al Maliki is a shrewd quick study who’s managed to position his party at the heart of power nodes, defeating radical Shiites, keeping Sunnis subservient and outflanking American authority in Iraq. Should Iraqi democracy falter, Al Maliki-- impatient with dissent and instinctively repressive—has the makings of an authoritarian chief.
Al Maliki’s Early Life and Family:
Nouri Kamal Hassan al Maliki, also known as Jawad al-Maliki, was born on June 20, 1950 in Hilla, Iraq, the son of middle class parents and the grandson of Hasan Abdul Muhassin, a religious cleric, poet and politician who’d been a member of the anti-British revolt in 1920 before serving in parliament and as minister of education. Al Maliki attended a religious college founded by a leader of Al Dawa, the underground Islamic party Maliki joined in college, and would eventually lead. He earned an MA in Arabic literature.
Escaping Saddam Hussein’s Crackdown:
When Al Dawa challenged Saddam Hussein’s leadership in 1979, Saddam purged the country of Al Dawa members and sympathizers. Tens of thousands were killed. Maliki escaped. For the next quarter century he’d divide his time between Iran, Syria, Lebanon and the area of Kurdish Iraq protected by the Anglo-American no-fly zone after the first Gulf War. From al Dawa offices in Syria and Lebanon, Al Maliki spearheaded resistance activities against Saddam’s regime, then cooperated with the U.S.-sponsored Iraq National Congress, a an anti-Saddam coalition that first met in Beirut in 1991. Al Maliki organized that first meeting.
Al Maliki in Iran:
A key to understanding al Maliki’s power is in his shrewd ability to balance and maintain relatively close ties with competing interests. In Iran after 1979, in a camp 13 miles from the city of Ahwaz, Al Maliki accepted the Iranian regime’s sponsorship of Al Dawa’s resistance activities (including training and supplies) without subordinating Al Dawa’s goals to Iran’s. Al Maliki led indoctrination sessions and promised that “martyrdom will strengthen our roots not uproot us.” Al Dawa and Maliki left the camp when Iran imposed greater controls. But he maintained relations with Tehran.
Return to Baghdad:
The American-led invasion of Iraq ended Saddam Hussein’s regime in April 2003. Former opposition figures streamed back to Baghdad, among them Nuri al Maliki. A scramble for power began among Iraqis, under the umbrella of American power. Among Shiites, two powers emerged once Ahmed Chalibi’s Iraqi National Congress was discredited: Al Dawa, and Muqtada al Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army. Maliki’s first role: vice president for De-Baathification, then vice president of the provisional parliament. Al Maliki won a seat in parliament’s first election in 2005, when al Dawa’s Ibrahim al Jaafari was chosen prime minister.
As Iraq degraded into sectarian and civil war, al-Jaafari’s leadership had the support neither of Kurds nor of Sunnis. He stepped aside. Parliament chose Al Maliki to replace him, largely because of Al Maliki’s former ties with Kurds and despite a streak of uncompromising authoritarianism. He was no friend to Sunnis, which strengthened his support among Shiites. He’d taken part in writing the country’s new (and yet ungratified) constitution, and the Bush administration believed he could easily be manipulated to do its bidding. Then Bush felt al Maliki was too ineffective. Al Maliki proved Bush wrong on both counts.
Angling for Power:
Al Maliki solidified power through two maneuvers. First, he sent Iraqi troops to Basra, the country’s second-largest city, in a showdown against Sadr’s Mahdi Army—and won, thus establishing his (and Al Dawa’s) authority as no other legitimate political party had in the country. Second, he virtually dictated a Status of Forces agreement with the United States that forced American troops out of Iraqi cities by June 2009 and made them subservient to Iraqi authority in key regards. When U.S. troops did pull back, al Maliki declared a “great victory. ” His reputation soared.
Al Maliki has capitalized on his victories over Sadr and the Americans by consolidating power. He’s done it through executive power by extending the authority and patronage of Al Dawa in government. He’s done it by using the power of incumbency, particularly pronounced in Iraq, to win a broader electoral mandate, as he did in February’s provincial elections, sweeping a large majority of the 440 seats up for grabs. And he’s done it by fiat. In August 2009, he proposed sweeping constitutional changes that would tighten his control over political parties, non-governmental organizations and the media.
Censorship Disguised as Security:
In summer 2009, Al Maliki’s government launched an assault on freedom of expression and access to various media, seemingly ending what had been a unique liberalization of expression there since 2003. As in repressive Arab regimes such as Syria and Saudi Arabia and non-Arab regimes such as Iran and Afghanistan, Al Maliki ordered Internet sites banned, began requiring Internet cafes and providers to register with the government, and pressured publishing houses to censor books. The government’s excuse: democracy must be balanced with security. Al Maliki’s moves were unsurprising. He’s an authoritarian in the making.