September 18, 2009 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 544

Al-Maliki Turns His Back on Iran, Embraces Iraqi Nationalism

September 18, 2009 | By Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli*
Iraq, Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 544

Nouri Kamal Al-Maliki, who became prime minister of Iraq in May 2006, was a compromise candidate. He was seen at the time as the weakest of the available candidates - a virtually unknown representative of the Islamic Al-Da'wa Party, at the time a junior partner in the predominantly Shi'ite United Iraqi Alliance (UIA). The occupying power, the United States, favored him because of his reputation as "independent of Iran," as U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalman Khalilzad put it. [1]

To the surprise - and perhaps consternation - of both his critics and his allies, Al-Maliki not only won the elections, but as prime minister managed to build himself a solid political base independent of his former coalition partners. In the January 2009 provincial elections, he ran a nonsectarian nationalist list called "Dawlat Al-Qanun" (State of Law) and won handsomely, particularly in Iraq's two key provinces, Baghdad and Basra. By contrast, and reflecting a general decline in the popularity of Islamic parties, the UIA received only half the number of the votes it had received in the 2005 general elections. [2] Indeed, the results of the provincial elections turned Al-Maliki into a dominant force in Iraqi politics. His success is significant because it became a source of friction between him and the original UIA members when the time came to recreate the Shi'ite coalition in preparation for the upcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled for 2010.

Translating Provincial Success into National Political Power; Disagreement with Old Partners

As the former UIA members began to negotiate the makeup and direction of their coalition for the 2010 elections, Al-Maliki presented them with conditions for his joining their coalition. The most important of these conditions are the following: First, Al-Maliki demanded 50 percent of the seats on the list, reflecting the strength of his State of Law platform in the provincial elections; second, he wanted to head the list, and thus serve another term as prime minister in the event of a victory in the elections. In the 2005 elections, the UIA won 130 out of 272 parliamentary seats, and was therefore able to form a government with the Kurdish parties.

In addition, Al-Maliki presented the following conditions:

  • The coalition must be national, rather than sectarian, i.e., must not exclude non-Shi'ite candidates
  • It must do away with the has-hasah system (a quota system of distributing the spoils of victory based on sectarian criteria)
  • It must ban the Sadrist movement, and former prime minister Ibrahim Al-Ja'fari, from responsible positions. [3]

The UIA Rejects Al-Maliki's Conditions

Al-Maliki's conditions for joining were rejected, and his Al-Da'wa Party is not included in the old/new Shi'ite coalition whose formation was publicly announced on August 24, 2009. [4] This coalition, named "Al-I'tilaf Al-Watani Al-'Iraqi" (Iraqi National Coalition or INC), comprises the Supreme Islamic Council; the Badr Organization (a militia affiliated with the Supreme Council); the Sadrist Movement; the National Reform movement headed by former prime minister Ibrahim Al-Ja'fari; a splinter group from Al-Da'wa Party; the National Congress headed by Dr. Ahmad Chalabi (who did not win even a single seat in parliament in the previous elections); and an assortment of other political groups and individuals from various provinces in Iraq. [5]

According to a July 20, 2009 report in Iraqi daily Al-Zaman, Al-Maliki plans to form his own coalition, made up of nonsectarian or cross-sectarian political groups and parties, including elements of the Sunni Al-Sahwat (Awakening) movement, which fought and expelled Al-Qaeda from the Al-Anbar province; the Kurdish Al-Taghyir (Change) party, which made an impressive showing in the elections to the Kurdish parliament this July, gaining 25 out of 111 seats; other Sunni groups or parties; and various tribal figures.

In choosing to split with his former partners from the UIA - based on his confidence that he can do better on his own - Al-Maliki took a big gamble. It must be remembered, however, that he took this decision before the August 19, 2009 bombings in Baghdad, in which 100 Iraqis were killed and more than 600 were wounded, and the offices of two important ministries - the Foreign Affairs and Finance ministries - were damaged. The bombings have presented Al-Maliki with a crisis and a challenge that may well influence not only the fortune of any coalition he puts together, but his own political future as well.

Al-Assad to Al-Maliki: Not a Single Iraqi Ba'thist in Syria Will Be Surrendered to Iraq, Not Even for $100 Million

On August 18, Nouri Al-Maliki made an official visit to Damascus to discuss the relations between the two countries, including economic and security issues. In the words of Iraqi columnist Daoud Al-Basri of the Kuwaiti daily Al-Siyassa, who is well-informed about Iraqi politics, Al-Maliki presented Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad with a mouthwatering package of deals and incentives in the fields of trade and oil. However, the package also included a list of 271 Ba'thist Iraqi leaders who reside in Syria and are allegedly involved in terrorist activities in Iraq, whom Al-Maliki wanted Syria to extradite. According to Al-Basri, upon hearing this request, Assad shot back that he would not surrender a single individual, not even for $100 million. He told Al-Maliki to take his papers and leave. [6] The joint Syrian-Iraqi communiqué issued after the meeting praised its outcomes and emphasized the establishment of a joint Strategic Council at the level of prime ministers which will meet twice a year to discuss the mutual collaboration between the two countries in the political, diplomatic, economic, military, energy, financial and educational spheres.

The August 19, 2009Baghdad Bombings - First Attacks on IraqiState Institutions

Less than 24 hours after the meeting between Assad and Al-Maliki, a series of massive explosions shook the Iraqi capital. Unlike previous bombings, which targeted one or another of the social/religious groups in Iraq, these targeted the Finance and Foreign Affairs ministries, known as "sovereign ministries." These were politically motivated bombings, striking at the heart of the Al-Maliki government with the aim of undermining its legitimacy. As pointed out by columnist Sabah Ali Al-Shaher in the daily Al-Zaman, these bombings, no matter who was behind them, delivered a severe blow to the credibility of the Iraqi government, which was constantly boasting that terrorism in Iraq was drawing its last gasps. To quote Al-Shaher, they "exposed the nakedness of the government and the weakness of its security apparatuses which are not only incompetent but are steeped in corruption and bribery." [7]

The government blamed the Iraqi Ba'thists in Syria for the explosions. That Bashar Assad is capable of initiating and encouraging such acts is evident from past events in Lebanon. It is said that, in late 2004, Assad summoned then-Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri and ordered him to extend the presidency of Emil Lahoud, or else have the ceiling come crashing down on his head. Not long after, in February 2005, Al-Hariri was killed by a massive car bomb on his way from the parliament house to his government headquarters in Beirut.

Iraq Demands Extradition of Iraqi Ba'thists Responsible for Bombing

Immediately after the bombings, Iraq arrested one of the suspected perpetrators, who was allegedly working for Iraqi Ba'thists in Damascus. This led Iraq to demand the extradition of two Iraqi Ba'thist leaders living in Syria, Muhammad Younis Al-Ahmad and Sattam Farhan, who were suspected of planning the bombings. [8] Iraqi government spokesman 'Ali Al-Dabbagh said that Iraq had, on numerous occasions, demanded the extradition of individuals suspected of involvement in terrorism against it - but that Syria responded by evading the issue and dragging its feet. Syria, Al-Dabbagh added, needs to choose "between maintaining good relations with Iraq and protecting those who seek to harm it."

Additionally, Iraq's Council of Ministers called on the U.N. to establish an international tribunal to try the criminals who planned and carried out these war crimes and crimes against humanity in Iraq. The Ministers Council also recalled the Iraqi ambassador from Damascus "for consultations," and Syria reciprocated by recalling its own ambassador from Baghdad. [9] In a speech at the Baghdad City Council, Al-Maliki described the attacks as a plot by certain countries, which he did not name, that have "much experience in sabotage and smuggling, and which insist on hosting terrorists and protecting them under the false slogan of resistance." [10]

A spokesman for the Syrian Foreign Ministry said that Syria had decided to recall its ambassador from Baghdad in response to Iraq's recalling its own ambassador, and added that the Syrian government "totally rejected" Al-Dabbagh's statements regarding the explosions in Baghdad. The Syrian position was that Iraq had "fabricated" the allegations against Syria for domestic and foreign purposes. [11]

Gifts of Death

Prior to the recall of the Iraqi ambassador from Damascus, Yassin Majid, editor-in-chief of the Iraqi daily Al-Bayan and public relations advisor to Al-Maliki, published an editorial titled "The Gifts of Brothers." In it, he complained that Syria had become a rear-guard base for the destruction of Iraq, "with or without the full knowledge of the Syrian officials." He emphasized, however, that it was highly unlikely that Syrian intelligence was unaware of the plans concocted by Iraqi Ba'thists residing in Syria (including perhaps the most senior survivor of the Saddam Hussein regime, former vice president 'Izzat Al-Douri). The brothers in Damascus, Majid continued, deny any knowledge of "the gifts of death" that enter Iraq across their border, and swear they know nothing about the Ba'thist plans or about the allegations against Muhammad Younis Al-Ahmad, suspected of planning the August 19 bombings. Majid also reminded his readers that, "not long ago, Syria denied [harboring] Abdullah Ojalan, head of anti-Turkish terrorist group PKK..." who was only expelled from the country after Turkey threatened Syria with military action. [12]

When Syrian Prime Minister Naji Al-'Otri was asked about Al-Ahmad during his April 22 visit to Baghdad, he replied that he did not know him and had never heard his name, adding that any effort to undermine the stability and security of Iraq is a line that must not be crossed. [13]

Turkey's Attempts to Mediate

In light of mounting conflict between the two countries and the escalation of the mutual insults, as Al-Sharq Al-Awsat called it, [14] Turkey sent its foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, to Baghdad and Damascus to mediate between the two sides.

In his August 31, 2009 meeting in Baghdad with the Turkish foreign minister, Al-Maliki enumerated his demands from Syria: the surrender of the two principal suspects in the August 19 attack (Al-Ahmad and Farhan), as well other individuals wanted by Interpol who have arrest warrants against them, and the expelling of Ba'thists and terrorists who are using Syria as a launch-pad for attacks against Iraq. Al-Maliki also continued to press for the establishment of an international tribunal to try criminals who have caused the death and injury of hundreds of Iraqis. [15]

Al-Maliki's culture advisor, Hussein Al-Shami, told the Kuwaiti daily Al-Siyassa that Al-Maliki would go "to any length" to confront the supporters of the Ba'thist terrorist groups, and that he was not concerned that the resulting escalation with Syria would lead to a Syrian reaction of raising the level of violence. Al-Shami added, with good reason, that Iraq needed nothing from the "Syrian entity"; on the contrary, it was Syria that needed Iraq's money and oil. [16] Responding to Iraq's harsh tone, President Assad characterized Iraq's stance as "immoral" (laakhlaqi). [17]

The Iran-Syria Axis and the Violence in Iraq

Ironically, the August 19 bombings in Iraq coincided with the arrival of Bashar Al-Assad in Tehran. The ostensible purpose of Assad's visit was to congratulate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his reelection to the presidency. However, the Kuwaiti daily Al-Siyassa stated, citing British sources, that the real reason for the visit was Assad's frustration over the waning of Obama's initiative for rapprochement with Syria, as evident from the U.S.'s failure to nominate an American ambassador to Syria, and by its extension of the economic sanctions on this country for another year, which took Assad by surprise. Driven by frustration, Assad, according to Al-Basri, may have decided to unleash violence in Iraq and place hurdles on the formation of a new government in Lebanon. [18]

Reporting from Tehran on Assad's visit to Tehran, UPI said that "[A]vailable state media reports from either country did not include statements of condolence regarding the Wednesday bombings in Baghdad…" [19]

The Role of Iran

If Syria is indeed behind the massive violence in Iraq, the intriguing question is why Iran permits this involvement, tacitly or otherwise. The answer may lie with the formation of the new Shi'ite coalition mentioned above, which Al-Maliki has so far refused to join. Iran must be annoyed with Al-Maliki's oft-repeated statements about his program to establish a new nationalist coalition as an alternative to the sectarian one headed by the Supreme Islamic Council, which is overwhelmingly Shi'ite and has the support of Iran. In fact, Syria may have instigated the bombings as a proxy for Iran that wishes to warn Al-Maliki against going too far. These bombings were, at the very least, a serious blow to Al-Maliki's prestige, since they enabled his opponents to present his government as incapable of dealing with the security challenges facing Iraq.

Political Risks for Al-Maliki

There is also a political risk facing Al-Maliki, namely a risk that his former partners in the United Iraqi Alliance (which has become the United National Alliance) may outmaneuver him in parliament and bring down his government, perhaps even before the elections take place. [20] While he will still be able to run in the elections (on the State of Law platform), the reality is that if he runs as a former prime minister, rather than as prime minister, some of his potential partners are likely to regard him as a less attractive candidate. Certainly, he will have less money at his disposal to dole out to existing and potential supporters.

On the other hand, one of the significant outcomes of the emerging political configuration is that Iran will be forced to take sides by placing its considerable weight behind the coalition led by the Supreme Islamic Council. This could end the symbiotic relationship that currently exists between Al-Maliki's Al-Da'wa party and Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps. Such a development could be a trump card for Al-Maliki, bringing him support from large sectors of the Iraqi society - including secular Shi'a, Kurds, Christians, other minorities, and above all the Sunnis, who fully reject the overwhelming Iranian influence on Iraqi politics. By this bold step, Al-Maliki can free himself from the Iranian embrace. At the same time, his confrontation with Syria - a strategic ally of Iran - can signal to Iran that he plans to take Iraq on a nationalist, rather than a sectarian, course.

What Are Al-Maliki's Chances on his Own?

Nouri Al-Maliki is clearly a skilled politician, who has risen from obscurity to prominence thanks to his ability to work the tangled Iraqi political scene. There are a number of factors that will work in his favor should he decide to put together a national coalition to compete head-on with the new coalition of the Supreme Islamic Council:

First, the death last week of the Council's leader, 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Hakim, and the appointment of his son, 'Ammar Al-Hakim, to take his place - which leaves the Council bereft of solid leadership and renders it vulnerable to internal dissent and infighting. 'Ammar does not have the political or religious stature of his father, and some in the Council who will undoubtedly seek to replace him.

Second, the Shi'ite marja'iya (the center of Shi'ite religious scholarship in Najaf), and the top Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah 'Ali Al-Sistani, do not advocate clerics' involvement in politics, unlike the religious establishment in Iran. The view of the Shi'ite religious establishment in Iraq is that clerics should counsel the government but should not take an active part in running the country. This makes room for Al-Maliki to run on a relatively secular - or at least not purely-Shi'ite - platform.

Third, one of the main forces in the national Iraqi coalition is the Sadrists, whose leader, Muqtada Al-Sadr, is currently undergoing religious training in Iran. A mercurial figure, Al-Sadr left the United Iraqi Alliance in 2008 along with his 30 MPs. Though a Shi'ite and a descendent of a distinguished line of scholars, he has often chosen Iraqi nationalism over sectarianism; hence, one cannot rule out the possibility of an about-face in the direction of Al-Maliki, who is a more suitable ideological soulmate for Al-Sadr than the traditional Shi'ite politicians who comprise the newly established Iraqi National Coalition.

A fourth factor is the emergence of a powerful new Kurdish party, Change, which made significant inroads into the Kurdish political scene by winning 25 of the 111 seats in the last elections to the Kurdish parliament. This party will make a handsome addition to Al-Maliki's political force.

Fifth, Al-Maliki has another set of natural allies - the Sunnis. However, in order to gain their support, he must shed the Islamist mantle of the Islamic Al-Da'wa Party. Saleh Al-Mutlak, one of the leading Sunni politicians and head of the National Dialog Front (Jabhat Al-Hiwar Al-Watani which made a good showing in the provincial elections in Western Iraq), has said that, if Al-Maliki wants the Sunnis to join him in a national coalition, he must dissolve the Al-Da'wa Party. This, because its historical connections with Iran are an anathema to Sunni voters. [21]

While these factors are all in Al-Maliki's favor, there are other issues that he must deal with: First of all, his government is thoroughly corrupt (as confirmed by Transparency International, which has repeatedly ranked it close to the bottom of its lists in terms of corruption). Resources earmarked for development and for the benefit of people often end up in the pockets of corrupt officials. Al-Maliki therefore has to do more to improve the lives of the Iraqi people and to earn their support.

Additionally, his relationship with Syria is complicated by the presence of some two million Iraqi refugees who escaped from Iraq to Syria in search of safety. Most of the leaders of the defunct Iraqi Ba'th Party are living there, supported financially by donors from the Gulf who despise the Shi'ite government in Iraq, and logistically by Syria, which often acts as a proxy for or in collusion with Iran, with the aim of destabilizing Iraq and expediting the withdrawal of the United States forces from that country.

But the biggest challenge facing Al-Maliki is simply to survive in an environment where attempts on the lives of politicians are a daily occurrence.

*Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is Senior Analyst (emeritus) at MEMRI.


[1] The Washington Post (U.S.), April 26, 2006. See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 530, "Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Kamal Al-Maliki - Critical of Consensus Democracy - Calls for a Presidential System," July 1, 2009, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Kamal Al-Maliki, Critical of Consensus Democracy, Calls for a Presidential System.

[2], June 8, 2009

[3] Al-Sabah Al-Jadid (Iraq), August 20, 2009; Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 25, 2009

[4] Al-Maliki asked the leaders of the INC to postpone the announcement of its establishment - but they ignored this request, partly because, in the wake of the massive Baghdad bombings of August 19, he was seen as politically vulnerable, and partly because they believed he was playing for time.

[5] Al-Sabah (Iraq), August 24, 2009

[6] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), August 28, 2009

[7] Al-Zaman (Iraq), August 27, 2009

[8] Farhan has a long record of terrorism in Iraq, going back to 2003. In 2004 he was placed on the U.S. list of most wanted terrorists, and a reward was offered for information leading to his arrest. In 2005 he fled to Syria after narrowly escaping arrest in Iraq. Wakalat Al-Sahafa Al-Iraqiyya (Iraqi Press Agency), August 30, 2009

[9] Al-Zaman (Iraq), Akhbar Al-Khaleej (Bahrain), Al-Thawra (Syria), August 26, 2009; Dawlat Al-Qanun Network,

[10] Al-Sabah (Iraq), August 26, 2009

[11] Al-Thawra (Syria), August 26, 2009. The diplomatic relations between Syria and Iraq were renewed in 2008, after being severed in 1991 over Syria's support of the Western coalition that expelled the Iraqi army from Kuwait. Today, these relations, which have been rocky for decades, are once again on hold.

[12] Al-Zaman (Iraq), August 26, 2009

[13] Al-Mada (Iraq), August 26, 2009


[14] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 31, 2009

[15] Al-Sabah (Iraq), September 1, 2009

[16] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), August 27, 2009

[17] Al-Zaman (Iraq), September 1, 2009

[18] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), August 28, 2009

[19] United Press International, August 20, 2009

[20] Al-Rafidayn (Iraq), August 25, 2009

[21] Al-Rafidayn (Iraq), August 25, 2009

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