Nouri Al Maliki, the Iraqi former prime minister thought to be seeking a comeback in October's elections, was days away from being sanctioned by the US government earlier this year, according to a source close to the matter.
The move was being discussed during the closing weeks of the Trump administration in January but the government transition reportedly stalled the process.
“He was so close to designation, but state mechanisms ran out the clock on him,” the source said.
The basis for the sanctions is not clear, although in recent years Mr Al Maliki has faced a growing number of corruption allegations and increasingly positioned himself in alliance with Iran-backed groups that have attacked US forces and killed hundreds of protesters.
Iraq's prime minister from 2006 to 2014, Mr Al Maliki was considered by some in Washington to be “our man in Iraq”, at one time holding regular video calls with former president George W Bush, who described him as “a good man with a difficult job”.
He has kept a relatively low profile recently, but is seeking a political return in the coming election, according to analysis by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
His new allies include an organisation linked to an Iran-backed militia called Sayyid Al Shuhada, which recently threatened US forces in Iraq.
While Mr Al Maliki escaped sanctions, the US in January sanctioned Faleh Al Fayyadh, the head of Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), for human-rights abuses and corruption. The militia umbrella organisation is officially under the Iraqi government, but many of its groups are openly loyal to Iran.
Mr Al Fayyadh, who once served as acting minister of state for national security in Mr Al Maliki’s government, is accused of orchestrating a crackdown on anti-government protests that broke out in late 2019, in which at least 500 people were killed.
The US earlier also sanctioned several prominent commanders of Iran-backed PMF militias, including Qais Al Khazali of Asaib Ahl Al Haq, whose party Sadiqun briefly joined Mr Al Maliki’s political bloc in 2014.
Al Khazali is among the PMF commanders who have long orchestrated attacks on US forces, and in some cases Iraqi security forces.
Iran’s man in Iraq?
Mr Al Maliki repeatedly denied facilitating Iran-backed groups while in power, as billions of dollars of US reconstruction funds flowed into Iraq, but Americans were divided over the extent to which he was telling the truth.
“Maliki reiterated a vision of Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish partnership, and in my one-on-one meeting with him, he impressed me as a leader who wanted to be strong but was having difficulty,” wrote former US National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley in a leaked 2006 memo.
The memo made no mention of the fact that Mr Al Maliki’s Dawa party contained an MP named Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis.
Muhandis had been accused by the US and Kuwait of orchestrating an attack on the US and French embassies in Kuwait in 1983, and would go on to become the de facto leader of the PMF until he was killed by a US drone strike in January 2020.
Mr Al Maliki once told a journalist that the evidence of Muhandis's role in the Kuwait attacks was slim.
“If we get some evidence against him, we will arrest him now,” he said.
After Muhandis was sanctioned by the US in 2009, Mr Al Maliki privately confided to the former US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker that he did not trust the Iranians, describing how Iran favoured other Iraqi groups over his Dawa party during the Iran-Iraq war, most notably the Badr Organisation, which would go on to become one of the most powerful Shiite organisations in Iraq.
His ambiguous position on Iran served Mr Al Maliki well. The US became more concerned that he was becoming an authoritarian ruler rather than a secret ally of Iran.
“If you look at it from what the situation was until 2011 there was a basis for viewing Maliki as ‘our man',” said Kirk H. Sowell, publisher of Inside Iraqi Politics.
“It is not as if the alternatives were great. One was Baqir Al Zubaydi, best known for executing Sunnis by drilling through their skulls, and Ali Al Adib was another, and [Mr Al Maliki's predecessor, Ibrahim] Jaafari another — we'd already tried him. All the alternatives appeared closer to Iran.”
Maliki and the militias
By mid-2008, Mr Maliki’s backers could point to his aggressive military operation, Charge of the Knights, to clear the radical cleric Moqtada Al Sadr’s Iran-backed Jaish Al Mahdi militia from Basra.
"Charge of the Knights changed him, changed everything,” said Norman Ricklefs, an adviser with coalition and Iraqi forces at the time.
"While all kinds of military plans were being made at the operational level, which I witnessed, Maliki just went ahead and ignored them all. He made a reckless and bold move. Maliki was Churchillian in that moment, impulsive, careless, and ultimately extremely successful."
"It coloured his administration and his character from then onwards."
Mr Al Sadr had fallen out of favour with Tehran and Mr Al Maliki’s actions helped to hobble his brutal militia.
But other Iran-backed groups were rising and an increasingly powerful Mr Maliki was in the process of formalising them as political allies while he took control of Iraqi state institutions.
Days after ISIS swept through northern Iraq and seized Mosul in June 2014, Mr Al Maliki issued Cabinet Decree 301 to create the Commission for the Popular Mobilisation Forces, allowing Iran-backed militias a formal role in the fight against ISIS.
That year, he had allied with Sadiqun, the political wing of Asaib Ahl A Haq, and was allowing the militia a bigger role in the war on ISIS.
Despite being forced from office in August 2014 amid a collapse in Iraqi security, Mr Al Maliki retained powerful influence through state institutions.
"Throughout eight years in office, he appointed loyalists in every corner of the Iraqi state, says Omar Al Nidawi, a programme manager at Education for Peace in Iraq, an NGO.
"Other powerful parties have yet to replace hundreds of the directors and other 'special grade' appointees from the Maliki era. We're talking about massive patronage networks and corruption that generated many billions of dollars. That money is still floating around, and money is power," he added.
In recent years, Mr Al Maliki's allies have worked effectively to undermine prime ministers seen as close to the US, including his successor Haider Al Abadi and Mustafa Al Kadhimi, the current prime minister.
“Maliki provided Fatah [a political bloc led by the Badr Organisation] and PMF leaders with the political instinct they lost when Muhandis was killed,” Michael Knights, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said.
“Though still technically on a separate list in elections, Maliki played an optical adviser role akin to the one Ahmed Chalabi used to play for the Sadrists — the alliance builder.”
Although his growing ties with Iran-backed groups became clearer in 2014 — even as he called for US help against ISIS — Mr Al Maliki had been building strong partnerships with figures close to Tehran for years.
Fighters of the marshes
US State Department cables describe how Mr Al Maliki wanted to create loyalist militias in the south of Iraq. He chose Dagher Mousawi, the head of the resistance group Sayyid Al Shuhada following the 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein, to lead this project.
The US considered Mousawi effectively an agent of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
“Sayyid Al Shuhada has been widely reported to facilitate the transfer of weapons and munitions across the Iranian border into Iraq and to provide fiscal and logistical support to more violently inclined groups. Recent collateral reporting suggests they may be abetting efforts to assassinate political opponents targeted by IRGC,” a 2005 cable warned.
That year, Mr Al Maliki attended an Arab League event with Mousawi in tow; Mousawi posted a picture of the trip on his Twitter account.
Cables describe how the US believed the priority was to push back against Al Sadr’s militias, who were among the main drivers of sectarian conflict.
“The US considered Maliki someone who wanted to be a leader, for good or bad and supported him during Charge of Knights,” says Joel Wing, a California-based analyst.
“They thought, ‘he's a nationalist, we've hit pay dirt.’ Things didn't change until the 2010 election and even then some still backed him.”
Mousawi’s group Sayyid Al Shuhada appears to have re-mobilised under the same name in 2012 to fight in Syria, and their commander now regularly threatens the US.
In 2014, Mousawi ended his 11-year stint as a civilian politician to lead the PMF 7th Brigade, Liwa Al Muntadhar, but died in 2019 in a car crash.
Mr Al Maliki, though six years out of office, remains a powerful champion of the PMF.
He has pushed for a law criminalising criticism of the PMF, saying that anyone who does so is following “foreign agendas”.
Iraqi analyst Sadiq Hassan argues this has now become a formalised effort by former allies of Mr Al Maliki, including Asaib Ahl Al Haq, to intimidate or kill those who criticise the PMF.
Mr Al Fayyadh, Muhandis and Al Khazali threatened to “cut off the hands” of protesters who attacked their offices during demonstrations in Basra in 2018 over poor public services and a lack of jobs — foreshadowing the bloodshed that would meet the 2019 protests.
Mr Al Maliki's new political efforts suggest he may be rekindling some of these old alliances before October’s elections, including an alliance with Mousawi’s former PMF unit.
Mr Knights and his colleague Hamdi Malik recently noted that Mr Al Maliki’s forthcoming electoral coalition will include leaders of the original Iraqi faction of Hezbollah, and Saraya Hezbollah, which is linked to Mousawi’s Liwa Al Muntadar faction, and Sayyid Al Shuhada — all original anti-Saddam resistance groups formed in the 1990s.