BAGHDAD — Little Venice, a lush residential neighborhood of canals and gardens, lies nestled in the Green Zone, an abrupt departure from the checkpoints, traffic, and blast walls across the rest of the Iraqi capital. Its expansive villas used to belong to Saddam Hussein’s top henchmen; now, they are the homes of Iraq’s new political elite. And in the heart of this neighborhood, just as he did for the eight years when he ruled Iraq, lives Nouri al-Maliki.
Though Maliki was forced out as prime minister in September, he is far from being a political exile. He is one of the country’s three vice presidents, and is still the secretary-general of the Islamic Dawa Party, from which Iraq’s last three prime ministers have hailed. Perhaps most importantly, Maliki — a workaholic known for regularly putting in 16-hour days — has been bolstering his ties to Iran and the powerful Shiite militias that sprang up in reaction to the Islamic State’s torrid expansion across Iraq last year.
The man who was once America’s point man in Iraq blames the United States for abandoning his country in its time of need. In an interview with Foreign Policy, he said that Iraq was “almost under a siege when it came to receiving weapons” during the crucial period last year when the Islamic State was preparing to seize Mosul.
“Our plan was to rely on American weapons, but the American side did not provide the necessary arms,” he said. “It was as if they did not realize the level of the threat that the Iraqi government was facing.”
In the absence of the United States, Maliki argued, Iraq had no choice but to look to Iran for support.
“The Iranian weapons are the ones that enabled the Iraqi forces to fight daesh,” Maliki said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “If weapons were available to us according to the [security] agreement between Iraq and the United States, we would not have needed the Iranian weapons.”
It has long been an article of faith among both loyalists and enemies that Maliki, who often appears on Iraqi television stations, is plotting a political comeback. One Western official told the New York Times that Maliki was “absolutely convinced” he would return to power sometime this year. While he denied earlier this month that he had plans to return to office, he also added then, “If the Iraqi people decide to elect me … I won’t decline.”
The struggle for power between Maliki and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is far more than a personal rivalry. At stake is a debate within the Iraqi Shiite community over how to wield power over the Iraqi state.
Since replacing Maliki in September, Abadi has charted a dramatically different path from that of his predecessor. The new prime minister has tried to build ties with marginalized Arab Sunnis and Kurds: He pushed forward legislation to form a National Guard that could arm and regulate anti-Islamic State Sunni tribal fighters, and completed a landmark agreement with the Kurdistan Regional Government over oil revenues.
In his last years in power, Maliki made no such efforts at inclusiveness. His critics accused him of centralizing power around a small cadre of loyalists — Maliki himself served, for example, as both minister of defense and interior. He feuded openly with the Sunnis and Kurds, and obliquely blamed both groups for conspiring to bring about the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State.
“Maliki, as one person put it, is the most popular and unpopular politician in the entire country,” said Hayder al-Khoei, an associate fellow at the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House. In other words, he’s a polarizing figure: Those outside his circle loathe him, while his political base loves him.
While Abadi hails from the same party as Maliki, Khoei says that his style is dramatically different. “One Dawa person put it to me like this: If two of Abadi’s friends are quarreling, Abadi will go out of his way to please the one who is less of a friend,” he said. “He’s much more well-respected, not just among the Sunnis and Kurds, but among his major Shiite rivals and partners, who Maliki systematically marginalized.”
For Maliki’s supporters, this mentality suggests that Abadi lacks the leadership qualities possessed by the former prime minister — and which they say are necessary to govern Iraq in a time of crisis.
“Maliki is a decisive man, he is a man of action,” said Saad al-Muttalibi, a former Maliki advisor and member of the ruling State of Law Coalition. “Dr. Haider is a good friend of mine, but he’s not a prime minister — he’s a traffic warden.”
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From his Baghdad home, Muwaffaq al-Rubaie contemplates the political future of his former boss over a cup of tea. Maliki’s national security advisor, who is perhaps best known for leading Saddam Hussein to the gallows in 2006, has a simple message: Don’t count Maliki out.
“He is secretary-general of one of the most important, the strongest, the most organized political parties,” he said. “And I don’t think his political position is shaken inside the party.”
Maliki has worked hard to shore up his popularity among his Shiite base. Rubaie noted that the vice president was regularly traveling to Iraq’s provinces to consolidate support among local leaders of the Dawa Party and the broader alliance of which it is a part, the State of Law Coalition. “A lot of these [local leaders] are Malikiyoons,” Rubaie said.
Maliki has done far more than glad-handing local party chieftains; he has also tended to his international relationships, aligning himself firmly in the Iranian camp. In November, he traveled to Tehran to meet a who’s who list of top Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani, and Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani. In their meeting, Khamenei lauded the Iraqi leader for doing a “great job by preventing turmoil and instability,” saying that his efforts “will never be forgotten.”
Maliki followed up his trip to Iran with an official state visit to Lebanon later that same month, where he was met at the airport by officials from Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, the country’s two main Shiite parties. While Maliki had always fostered strong ties with the Iranians, during his eight years in power he balanced those ties with his relationship with the United States. No longer: This time, the politician who was initially plucked from obscurity by the CIA to lead Iraq made no effort to disguise his warm reception by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
In today’s Iraq, Maliki’s cultivation of Iran and its allies is simply good politics. You have to go back to the 17th century to find a period when Tehran had more influence over Baghdad: Iran’s influence has skyrocketed over the last year, as it has reportedly sent over 1,000 military advisors to fight the Islamic State, conducted airstrikes against the jihadi group, and funded and armed the Shiite militias that are now ascendant in the capital. The commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, Gen. Qassem Suleimani, is a fixture on the country’s front lines — most recently in the city of Samarra, where he has been gathering Shiite militias for an assault on the Islamic State-held city of Tikrit. A poster of Ayatollah Khamenei now graces Baghdad’s Firdaus Square, which used to be dominated by a statue of Saddam Hussein.
One of the most prominent ways that Tehran has expanded its influence in Iraq has been through what’s known as “popular mobilization committees” — new Shiite militias made up of volunteers who answered Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s fatwa last summer to take up arms against the Islamic State. These groups represent a new force on Iraq’s political and military scene, and Maliki quickly tried to harness them. On Jan. 26, he became the first senior Iraqi official to publicly meet with the leaders of the popular mobilization committees; his loyalists subsequently declared that the vice president had emerged as a leader of the movement.
“All the doors were closed [to the popular mobilization committees], except for Maliki’s door,” Muttalibi said. “Maliki said to them: ‘What do you want? I’m here for you.’”
In the interview with Foreign Policy, Maliki denied that he had any official position of leadership within the popular mobilization committees, but admitted, “my relationship with them is good.” It bears remembering that these militias were stood up while he was in power.
Even loose ties to Iraq’s Shiite militias, which are estimated to include over 100,000 men, could help reinsert Maliki into the national security arena, giving him a role in the fight against the Islamic State. It could also serve to position him as a spoiler to Abadi’s efforts to nurture ties with the Sunni and Kurdish communities.
One of the Abadi government’s priorities, for example, is a reform of the de-Baathification law, which prevented members of Saddam Hussein’s government from holding office in the new Iraq. Loosening the restrictions on former Baath Party members is a major Sunni demand, but it also risks raising the ire of Shiite leaders and militia commanders.
“The popular mobilization is very determined that they will not allow such things,” said Muttalibi. “Taking into consideration their power, their presence, the amount of equipment they hold, the amount of popularity they gained among the people, the amount of support they receive from Iran, I think it would be foolish not to take them seriously.”
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Political leaders within Maliki’s own bloc don’t much want to talk about the vice president’s political future. The responses of Dawa Party officials, who happily go on at length about any other subject, often become terse when one turns the discussion toward Maliki. Sometimes, the answers seemed to be given in code.
Ali al-Alaq, a Dawa Party parliamentarian, enthusiastically described the new mood in Iraq’s corridors of power. The legislator said this was the best parliament he has ever seen in Iraq: The Abadi government was working hard, the political blocs were communicating with one another, and there was an atmosphere of cooperation all around.
“But some people are working to destroy these new bonds,” he said. “Let me put it this way: Those who found that the new situation was against their personal interests, they feel like they’ve lost the bet.”
Was this an oblique reference to Maliki? Could Alaq give an example of who these people are? “No need,” he said, smiling.
Maliki’s two terms at Iraq’s helm gave him an opportunity to nurture supporters across the country — but he also made many enemies. He drove Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s militia out of the southern city of Basra in 2008; violently broke up a protest camp in the city of Ramadi, where Sunni Arabs were airing their grievances against the government in 2013; and feuded with the Kurds last year over control of the country’s valuable oil resources, eventually accusing them of working with the Islamic State. All of these segments of the population are still firmly aligned against Maliki — and even among senior figures in the Dawa Party, former loyalists are trying hard not to take sides.
Ali al-Adeeb is a former minister of higher education and a Dawa Party veteran who was once a leading candidate for prime minister in 2006, before Maliki was eventually tapped. Though long considered a staunch Maliki ally, Adeeb dismissed any suggestion that the former prime minister had any special authority within his party. The question of whether he would remain its titular head, Adeeb said, would be decided at a general assembly meeting later this year.
“Really, there is no single leader of the Dawa Party … it’s a group leadership,” he said. “Maliki has no extra privileges; he is at the same level as the 11 leaders of the party.”
Within Iraq’s broader Shiite political sphere, leading voices are even more hostile to a Maliki comeback. Sadr issued a statement vehemently opposing the former premier for any position of leadership in the popular mobilization committees, and one of his top lieutenants in parliament, Hakim Zamili, has championed a parliamentary investigation of Maliki for his culpability in the fall of Mosul. In interviews with Foreign Policy, officials in two main Shiite militias, the Badr Organization and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, rejected Maliki’s leadership of the popular mobilization committee out of hand.
The opposition to Maliki from Sistani, who sent a handwritten letter to Dawa Party leaders last year calling for the selection of a new prime minister, also carries a force that the vice president will find hard to overcome.
“People close to Maliki see him back in power in the next year or two,” said Khoei. “They are confident that Abadi is going to fail, and Maliki will plug the gap. I can’t see that as a realistic scenario, given that Sistani put his foot down so strongly. That, for me, will seal the deal for both the Iranians and in domestic Iraqi politics as well.”
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And yet, stranger things have happened in Iraqi politics than a Maliki comeback. He did not lose his position because his public support collapsed; in fact, he led the State of Law Coalition to a sweeping victory in the 2014 parliamentary elections. One of the factors in Maliki being forced aside was firm U.S. pressure — influence that appears to be waning by the day.
Khoei said that, to this day, Maliki still probably has more support than Abadi among the grassroots Shiite constituency. “He’s seen as, to put it crudely, the defender of the Shiites,” he said.
Maliki’s political fate is likely tied to the success or failure of Abadi’s efforts to build a more inclusive government than that of his predecessor. If Abadi succeeds in building ties with the Sunnis and the Kurds — and if that alliance can win real victories against the Islamic State, recapturing the areas lost during Maliki’s last months in power — the former prime minister’s return to power will likely remain a pipe dream.
But such rosy scenarios rarely play out in Iraq. It’s not hard to find voices who believe Abadi’s current stab at inclusiveness is just part of the honeymoon phase of his rule, not unlike what Maliki experienced early on — a phase that will quickly collapse due to the struggles in the war against the Islamic State and the weight of Sunni and Kurdish demands.
“The Sunni politicians are already saying, ‘This guy is just like the last one,’” said Adeeb. “These Sunnis were in power for 35 years [under the Baath Party], so they want to rule…. They are used to it: Since the Umayyads, Abbasids, and Ottomans, they were always ruling.”
The danger for Abadi is that his push for inclusiveness will transform him into a political orphan — unable to meet the demands of Iraq’s other communities, and seen as not sufficiently protective of his own community’s prerogatives. “My biggest fear for Iraq is that Abadi will move toward rapprochement at a rate the Shiite base can’t tolerate,” Khoei said. “If Abadi fails, someone else takes his place and exploits that anger. Abadi is walking on thin ice, and he knows it.”
With Shiite militias ascendant, Iranian influence stronger than ever, and the Islamic State looming as an existential threat, another ruler could choose to deal with Iraq’s challenges not through inclusiveness, but by marshaling the forces of the Shiite bloc to crush them. Ironically, it was Maliki himself who pointed out the dangers of having Baghdad rely solely on one foreign patron to support the government.
“The Strategic Framework Agreement [with the United States] kept a balance: The agreement represented friendship and relations with the Americans, and on the other side you had friendship and relations with the Iranians and the Turks,” he told Foreign Policy. “But when [the Americans] didn’t fulfill their commitment, this upset the balance.”
With U.S. influence waning in Baghdad, it could be just this lack of balance that provides Maliki with an opening to make a comeback.
“We have not seen the end of Maliki,” Rubaie predicted. “Maliki will stay in the political process in Iraq. Maliki will resurrect himself.”
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