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Ignoring Critics, Iraq's Leader Consolidates Power

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (center) arrives on May 8 at Kirkuk airport in northern Iraq, on his first visit to the multi-ethnic city since taking office.
Marwan Ibrahim
AFP/Getty Images
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (center) arrives on May 8 at Kirkuk airport in northern Iraq, on his first visit to the multi-ethnic city since taking office.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki recently held one of his traveling Cabinet meetings in the disputed city of Kirkuk in an effort to show Iraqi Arabs on the edge of the Kurdish-controlled north that he's working on their behalf, too.

But the fact that he felt obliged to bring in large numbers of heavily armed troops for the event illustrated the tension plaguing Iraqi politics.

Iraq's political situation seems to be lurching from crisis to crisis, amid growing fears that Maliki is intent on destroying the opposition and perpetuating his rule. Even some of his political allies are now threatening to bolt, raising concerns about the durability of Iraq's nascent democratic structure.

Much of the anger at Maliki is fueled by the belief that he's adopting the governing style of the late Saddam Hussein. The gist of one joke suggests that Maliki has done what the British and the Americans failed to do — unify Iraq's factions. Now, they all hate him.

Hamza al-Gurtani comes from a powerful Sunni tribe and is a member of the opposition Iraqiya bloc. He says that with no apparent objection from the Americans, Maliki is amassing the kind of power that only a dictator would need.

"He's packing all the security positions with his followers," Gurtani says. "It's unreasonable and unworkable for him to be prime minister, defense minister, interior minister and head of intelligence at the same time. It's completely unacceptable."

Threats Of A No-Confidence Vote

Recently, alarm bells went off when one of Maliki's coalition partners in the Iraqi National Alliance, a Shiite political bloc, turned against the prime minister. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr threatened to join a new coalition with Iraqiya and the Kurds, and force a vote of no confidence in the prime minister.

Baghdad analyst Ahmad al-Abyadh says Maliki has a host of political enemies.

The Kurds are convinced he's ready to attack them as soon as the Americans deliver promised F-16 fighter jets to the Iraqi air force.

The Sadrists are convinced he's planning to evict them from the ruling coalition, and Abyadh believes another Shiite group in Maliki's bloc, known by the acronym ISKI, could be wavering.

According to Abyadh, if reconciliation talks fail, the coalition government could fall apart, leading to a no-confidence vote.

On paper, it looks like a serious threat to Maliki's rule. But the prime minister's supporters aren't too concerned by the threat of a no-confidence motion.

Businessman and Maliki backer Saad Muttalibi says those who have actually tried to add up the votes say the opposition is well short at the moment.

"Just go ahead, we will sit there and laugh at the puny numbers you will gain in the parliament," he says.

Muttalibi says pro-Maliki forces are mounting a counterattack, collecting votes for a no-confidence motion against the anti-Maliki speaker of the parliament. And he says Sadr is jeopardizing his future in the governing National Alliance by cozying up to the Kurds and Sunnis.

"Maybe Muqtada al-Sadr understands he will not be part of the National Alliance, and therefore he wants to make sure there is a sort of agreement that they will keep him within the game. But he's taking the wrong way in doing it, I think," Muttalibi says.

Lack Of Strong Alternatives

Analysts say Maliki has some advantages, not least the widespread perception that at the moment there's no one else who stands a better chance of holding the country together.

One short list of replacements includes a former prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who presided during a time of horrific sectarian bloodshed; Ahmed Chalabi, the former exile who helped convince the Bush administration that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction; and Jabr Bakr al-Zubeidi, the Shiite former interior minister at a time of widespread reports of torture and secret prisons.

Even critics of Malaki's power grabs, like Sunni politician Gurtani, worry about what might come after Maliki.

"We're concerned that if there is a vote of no confidence the country would be plunged into chaos," he says. "Despite the many reservations against Maliki, he's a kind of safety valve for Iraq — but only if he enacts real reforms and rids himself of this paranoia."

At the moment, the prospects of real reform in Baghdad seem slim, as the government lurches toward another confrontation — or another long-shot effort at dialogue and reconciliation.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.