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Maliki Subjected to Mounting Criticism

Opponents accuse emboldened premier of adopting dictatorial leadership style.
By Basim al-Shara

Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki is facing considerable challenges to his leadership, with opponents and critics saying he has built up too much power as a result of recent political and security gains.

In the last year, Maliki has taken on powerful Shia militias, led Iraq through a steep decline in violence, brought Sunni Arabs back into his government and finalised a security pact with the Bush administration that transfers key powers back to Iraqis.

But as Maliki has chalked up successes, Iraqi politicians have become increasingly critical of the premier. Maliki’s rivals – including his one-time allies – have accused him of adopting a dictatorial leadership style by making unilateral decisions, creating local councils to boost the central government’s power and ignoring the demands of other political alliances.

Tensions between Maliki and his critics have risen as Iraq prepares to hold its first provincial elections in four years on January 31. Speculation is swirling that Maliki’s opponents are seeking to oust the prime minister. His opponents have downplayed the rumours. The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a Shia party, this week denied allegations that it was seeking a no-confidence vote in parliament that would force Maliki out before his term ends in 2010.

Over the past several months, Maliki has faced mounting criticism on several fronts, including from within his own United Iraqi Alliance, a Shia bloc which holds the plurality of seats in parliament. Opposition is also growing from the powerful Kurdistan Alliance, while Sunni Arabs, who once pulled out of Maliki’s cabinet, remain sceptical of the Iraqi premier.

Maliki is facing a backlash for decisions that have boosted his position and strengthened the central government. Maliki’s supporters maintain that electoral politics and jealousy are fueling opposition to the prime minister, but critics – primarily political leaders – say they fear Maliki is becoming too powerful.

“Maliki acted unilaterally over the past few months on many decisive issues,” said Abdul Karim al-Samarie, the prominent leader of the Sunni Arab-led Iraqi Accord Front.

One of the key points of contention has been Maliki’s tribal councils – local groups that are supported by the central government and do not report to local authorities. Maliki’s decision to create the councils put him at odds with Shia and Kurdish leaders who press for federalism, and raised suspicions that the prime minister was attempting to create local power bases.

Some of the most fervent opposition stems from Shia political parties that are vying for power in provincial councils in largely Shia southern provinces, where Maliki’s Dawa party, one of the smaller Shia political players, is also seeking seats in January’s provincial council elections.

After decades of living under Saddam Hussein, many Iraqis fear a strong central government and claim that Maliki has used the military to consolidate power. Some saw last year’s military operations against Shia militias – primarily Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army – in Basra and Baghdad as a bold move to rein in sectarian militias, but others argued that Maliki was attempting to weaken his Shia political rivals.

Muhammed Abdul-Mutalib, a former Mahdi Army leader, said the military operations against the militias were “strong proof that the government will use the utmost cruelty if it controls the country”.

Maliki won respect in some circles for hammering out a security pact with the Bush administration, which largely yielded to Maliki’s demands including the stipulation that US forces fully withdraw from Iraq by 2011.

But some leaders believe Maliki crafted the agreement to bolster the central government’s authority.

Firyad Rawanduzi, spokesman for the Kurdistan Alliance, said Maliki assured political parties that they would be included in governing Iraq after the US leaves.

Still, “there are genuine fears that Maliki will control the country in a unilateral way after the pact”, Rawanduzi said.

Kurdish leaders backed the agreement but have had their own issues with the premier, who last month refused Iraqi president and Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani’s call to disband the tribal councils.

Iraq’s increased stability and the strengthening of Maliki and the Iraqi military are also threatening the substantial autonomy that Iraqi Kurdistan enjoyed while Baghdad was engulfed in conflict and political chaos. Maliki and Kurdish leaders are now sparring over the division of oil revenue from Kurdish provinces and the role of Kurdish forces. Baghdad has complained that Kurdish forces remain under the authority of the Kurdistan Regional Government, KRG, rather than the central government.

The Kurdistan region’s president, Massoud Barzani, last week called for a “truly balanced partnership” with Baghdad. Iraqi press reported that Maliki is soon expected to visit the region’s capital, Erbil. Kurdish support would be crucial for Maliki if a no-confidence vote was brought to parliament.

Maliki’s harshest critics say he is adopting traits of a dictator, but analysts and Maliki’s supporters maintain that the prime minister’s strength does not make him a dictator and that the outcry about Maliki’s power is political.

“The provincial elections are getting close,” said Hashim Hasan, a media professor in Baghdad. “That’s why these allegations and accusations are emerging.”

Maliki loyalists, and some analysts, say he enjoys broad support among Iraqis and has not overstepped his bounds or violated the constitution.

They argue that Maliki has succeeded in uniting Iraq by getting Sunnis Arabs, including the Awakening Councils, to work with his government instead of against it.

“The posters of Maliki with the slogan of his coalition, ‘State of Law’, are up in [the Sunni areas] of Diyala, Tikrit and Anbar,” said Hadi Jilu Mari, a writer and political analyst.

Mari praised Maliki for confronting political and sectarian conflicts, as well as for resisting US pressure to water down some of his demands – such as setting a date for a final American troop withdrawal.

“Maliki’s experience as a prime minister over the last three years has turned him into a powerful leader who understands very well what his people want,” he said.

Basim al-Shara is an IWPR-trained journalist in Baghdad.