Maliki may be overconfident in expecting a third term as Iraqi PM

After eight years in power, the prime minister faces estranged Shiite allies, a deeply suspicious Sunni minority, and Kurds resentful of his perceived meddling in their affairs.
The Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al Maliki shows his ink-stained finger after casting his vote inside the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad on April 30, 2014. AP Photo
The Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al Maliki shows his ink-stained finger after casting his vote inside the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad on April 30, 2014. AP Photo

BAGHDAD // Half-way through Iraq’s election day, Nouri Al Maliki claimed victory and confidently invited his critics to join him in the next governing coalition.

“Our victory is certain, but we are talking about how big is that certain success,” the Shiite prime minister of eight years said after he cast his ballot in the election for a new parliament.

But Mr Al Maliki’s confidence of a third-term in office is both premature and overly optimistic.

The man who rose from near obscurity to become prime minister in 2006 faces a wave of criticism over government corruption and MOUNTING bloodshed as sectarian tensions threaten to push the nation back to the worst days of Shiite-Sunni violence in 2006 and 2007.

While his State of the Law bloc is likely to win more seats than any other party, the prime minister will have no choice but to offer significant concessions to lure others, including one-time allies who have accused him of concentrating too much power in his hands, into a coalition.

The once dominant Sunni minority deeply distrusts the prime minister. They see him as too close to Iran, the region’s Shiite powerhouse, and interpret his policies as sectarian. Their discontent is fuelling a growing insurgency in several parts of the country, particularly Anbar province, west of the capital.

Mr Al Maliki’s former Shiites allies have accused him of leaving them out of decision making and are now suggesting they could freeze him out with an alliance that includes the Sunnis and the Kurds.

The Kurds themselves have tense relations with Mr Al Maliki and accuse him of meddling in the affairs of their autonomous region in the north.

Addressing a news conference yesterday, Mr Maliki appeared oblivious to the growing opposition he faces.

He said he was prepared to open talks with all blocs, big and small, to forge an alliance that would hold a majority in the next parliament. But, he added, he would insist on a meeting of minds on major issues such as preserving the unity of the country and doing away with sectarian policies.

Crucially, he made it clear he would not be searching for a broad-based “national unity” coalition, as has been the case over the past decade when governments included Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. A majority government with a minimum 165 seats in the next chamber that can govern effectively is what he would be looking for, he said.

Mr Al Maliki rightly bragged that the election went ahead relatively peacefully – five people were killed – and that the foreign and local observers who monitored the vote had no major complaints about the process. Turnout was also respectable at about 60 per cent. Even residents of Anbar displaced by fighting in their home province were able to vote in special polling centres, with a decent 50 per cent turnout, he said.

“This election defeated Al Qaeda as well as ISIL,” said Mr Al Maliki, alluding to the breakaway group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, whose fighters are battling government forces in Anbar.

While the election day was relatively peaceful, it is the recent dramatic increase in violence that will make Mr Al Maliki’s attempts to win a third term in office particularly difficult.

Last year, the death toll in Iraq climbed to its highest level since 2006 and 2007. The United Nations says 8,868 people were killed in 2013, and about 2,000 people were killed in the first three months of this year. The army has been bogged down in Anbar, unable to liberate areas under ISIL control. Officers there have complained of a higher-than-usual levels of desertion and inadequate supplies.

The violence and the Sunni perception of Mr Al Maliki as a sectarian politician determined to protect Shiite interests at all costs are also feeding growing, though unrealistic, secessionist sentiments in some of the nation’s Sunni regions.

Again, Mr Al Maliki’s perceived sectarianism and his close ties with Iran are straining Iraq’s relations with Saudi Arabia as well as pivotal Arab players such as Qatar and Jordan. With Mr Al Maliki virtually ostracised by these nations and others, Iraq’s isolation in the Arab world is acute.

Further straining these ties are Mr Al Maliki’s tacit support to Iraqi Shiite militiamen fighting in Syria on the side of President Bashar Al Assad.

The elections results, which are not expected for another week or so, his success in negotiating with other political groups will decide whether Mr Al Maliki wins a third term as prime minister. Over the past eight years the aloof and dour-faced prime minister has earned a reputation for being a canny politician skilled in using divide-and-rule tactics and the lure of high office to enlist the support of his critics.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Published: May 1, 2014 04:00 AM

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