When we were told in 2003, that the US and UK had gone to war in Iraq on false intelligence, a sliver of hope remained that we were still doing something good. Saddam Hussein was demonstrably a tyrant, and the thought was that the UK’s “boots on the ground”, however unnecessary, were at least making Iraq a better place to live in. For thousands of Iraqis in 2013 however, large swathes of the country have are still mired by sectarian violence and political oppression. Deaths at the hands of suicide bombers and car bombs remain a regular occurrence, and the country’s Sunni minority feel increasingly persecuted by the government. At the centre of this is Iraq’s abrasive Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki.
Outwardly, Maliki is Iraq’s democratically elected leader, but many have begun to question whether he is overstepping his responsibities. In addition to his executive role as PM, Maliki is also Iraq’s minister of the interior, and minister of “national security affairs”, a position which gives him full control over the country’s police force.
The first signs that Maliki’s government might have been abusing power came in 2006, when there were widespread reports of censorship and intimidation directed towards journalists in the country. Several satellite news channels, including Qatar-based Al Jazeera, have since been banned from Iraq’s airwaves, apparently for encouraging sectarian violence. The head of the national security services responded to accusations of censorship by telling journalists that they had a responsibility to support the regime with their reporting, and warned that legal action could be taken against any who didn’t do so.
Maliki himself has tried to project humility in his dealings with the press. In an interview for Australian news site SBS in 2010 and he hinted at a desire to step down once the situation in Iraq stabilized. That year’s parliamentary elections should have been Maliki’s opportunity to do just that. He gained 24.2% of the vote, and was beaten marginally by opposition party Al-Iraqiya, a secular coalition of parties formed of both Sunnis and Shi’ites. Maliki however, refused to accept defeat and ordered a recount. Unfortunately for Maliki, the electoral commission remained impartial, and the result stood. Running out of options, he decided on a power sharing deal that allowed him to stay as Prime Minister, while giving high profile government positions to Iraqiya members.
This seemed to stabilise the situation for a time, but violence kicked off again following the intimidation and then arrest of former vice-president Tamir Al-Hashimi in December 2011. In scenes reminiscent of the Soviet Purges of the 1930s, Al-Hashimi was convicted of plotting terrorist acts against the government and the Iraqi people and sentenced to death several times in absentia. Critics suggest his arrest was not justified by national security concerns, and conversely was an opportunistic attempt to marginalize the country’s most senior Sunni politician, and one of Maliki’s biggest enemies. Al-Hashimi is currently hiding out in Turkey, where Iraqi attempts to extradite him have thus far been fruitless. According to another member of Al-Iraqiya, ex-prime minister Ayad Alawi, Al Hashimi is just one of hundreds of opposition politicians have been detained and tortured by Maliki’s regime since the US withdrawal began in 2009.
It goes without saying that the people most concerned by the arrests of politicians like Al Hashami are Iraq’s Sunnis, who have been periodically protesting against the current regime for the past two years. This has continued in spite of incidents like “No retreat Friday” in January 2013, when government forces opened fire on Sunni protestors, killing 7 and injuring at least 70. The aims of the protestors have varied, but consistent has been the demand for Maliki to step down, and further, to release the political prisoners who have been detained without charge since he rose to power. Some concessions, including the release of prisoners, have been given by the government, but the repression of Sunnis by the police continues in many parts of the country.
Nonetheless, the main concern for many opponents of Maliki, Sunni and Shia alike, is security. Indeed, many rightly worry that the carnage unfolding in Syria could spill into Iraq, with Sunni insurgent groups such as the ‘Islamic State of Iraq’ already benefiting from the arms and munitions that have arrived over Iraq’s southern border with Syria. The government has shown itself to be incapable of stopping the terror attacks, and many of Maliki’s former allies are increasingly disillusioned with his confrontational style of leadership.
The parliamentary elections in 2014 should be the crucial test for Maliki’s government, but it is unclear if they will be postponed, as has been suggested by one Middle East News site, or even cancelled entirely. Given the sectarian violence that is engulfing the country currently, Maliki might be able to postpone on the grounds that the country is in a state of emergency, and questions persist about his commitment to democracy in the longer term. The fact remains that he is more unpopular now than at any time in his leadership, and would probably not win an election were it hosted in the near future.
In some respects, Maliki can and has argued that he is simply responding to acts of Sunni terrorism. Certainly those Sunni groups responsible for bombing heavily populated areas do not deserve sympathy. There is no denying however, that his strategy is not working. Over 4,500 Iraqis died as a result of violence in 2012 alone, most of them innocent civilians or unarmed protestors, and Maliki’s divisive approach has only fanned the flames of conflict.
What makes this all the more frustrating is that Iraq’s problems are, at least in principle, not insurmountable. The popularity of secular movements such as Al-Iraqiya suggests that most Iraqis are in favour of reconciliation, despite the continuing terror attacks. Furthermore, the country can be separated pretty neatly into Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurd areas, and one proposed solution has been to simply designate a self-governing autonomous zone for Sunnis, as has already been done in the large Kurdish community to the north of the country. This would go a long way to addressing the concerns of the Sunni minority, and would also isolate extremist elements such as Al-Qaeda, who have been exploiting the chaos that the sectarian divide has caused.
With Maliki at the helm however, no such move seems likely, and with the shadow of Syria looming on the horizon, many are concerned that Iraq could yet fall into another civil war of its own.