Rise of the Maliki Regime
ne year into the “Arab Spring,” it must be said that Iraq has bucked the prevailing trend in the Arab world. While grassroots movements in half a dozen other Arab countries have dismantled or shaken authoritarian regimes, a new one is being built in Iraq. During the revolutionary year of 2011, the government of Prime Minister Nuri Maliki consolidated its power, violently suppressing a popular protest movement and cracking down on political rivals at home, while intervening in two “Arab Spring” crises abroad. In doing so, the Maliki government has created a high risk of blowback from its foreign policy initiatives, while doing little to address the underlying causes of domestic Iraqi unrest, which will continue to fester.
The politics of personality
In Iraq today, it is increasingly appropriate to speak not of the Iraqi government, or of a Shi’a-dominated government, but rather of a Maliki regime. The “Malikists”—or, in Arabic, the “Malikiyoun”—are the newly-dominant force in Iraqi politics, an analog to the “Saddamists” or “Saddamiyoun” that Iraqis once knew. These are the officials and operators who have enabled Prime Minister Maliki to consolidate control of state power and gradually marginalize other major political blocs while doing so.
On an individual level, the Malikiyoun do not really represent Maliki’s Da’wa party. In the innermost circle, the Malikiyoun are instead composed of Maliki’s family and personal advisors, both official and unofficial. Those Malikiyoun who do hail from Da’wa tend to be “orphans”: Da’wa members who have no independent base of their own in the party or in the larger movement that spawned it. The Malikiyoun also include a sizeable contingent of former Ba’athists, some of whom once worked directly for Saddam or other senior leaders in the old regime. These Ba’athists-turned-Malikiyoun are especially common in the intelligence services and among Maliki’s political generals, who were almost all formerly high-ranking officers in Saddam’s army.
In sectarian terms, the Malikiyoun are majority Shi’a, and exhibit clear favoritism toward their sect along with extreme distrust, sometimes crossing into paranoia, toward Sunnis and the Ba’ath. But they are not driven first and foremost by Shi’a sectarian interests. In fact, they include Sunnis, Kurds, and a few other minorities among their ranks. Though the Malikiyoun will certainly play the Shi’a sectarian card when it serves their political purposes, they are just as ready to suppress Shi’a opponents as Sunni ones. Nor are the Malikiyoun Iranian puppets, though they are, for the present, aligned with the Iranian regime’s foreign policy in the region. As a result, the Maliki regime behaves as a Shi’a sectarian power in the broader region to a greater extent than they do inside Iraq. At the same time, the Malikiyoun are distrustful of Iranian intentions toward Maliki and his government, and this has led them to try to preserve a relationship with the United States, in order to balance what would otherwise be dominant Iranian influence.
The Malikiyoun are not motivated by a shared ideology. They are driven, instead, by the acquisition and holding of power, and above all are deeply committed to keeping Prime Minister Maliki in power. The common characteristic among all Malikiyoun is that their power derives entirely from their association with Maliki. If he were to fall from power, none of them would have anywhere to go, and this makes them more committed to him than any ideologue could be.
Steadily, since 2008, the Malikiyoun have enabled the Prime Minister to neutralize, one by one, the checks and balances the Iraqi constitution was meant to enshrine to prevent just such a consolidation of power.1 Over the past three years, Iraq’s independent commissions, armed forces, intelligence services, and judiciary have come under the formal or de facto control of the Prime Minister’s office. The Malikiyoun have placed heavy emphasis on the coercive arms of the state and can now be found in the highest levels of the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Interior, and intelligence apparatus. They can also be found atop the Iraqi Special Operations Forces and police commandos that now answer directly to the Prime Minister’s office and have coalesced into a new set of coup-proofing forces akin to Saddam’s Special Republican Guard. As they have gained control of these arms of the government, the Malikiyoun have gradually purged political opponents or independents from many key government positions. In addition, practically all major military, security, and intelligence appointments are now made directly by the Prime Minister’s Office, without confirmation by the Iraqi parliament.
This, then, is the Iraqi regime that happened to be in power during the historic events of 2011.This is a preview only. To read the full article click on the links below to purchase this issue or subscribe:
Lieutenant Colonel Joel Rayburn is a U.S. Army officer. From 2005 to 2010, he served at U.S. Central Command, with several deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 2011, he has served as a senior military fellow at National Defense University in Washington, DC, focusing on Middle Eastern affairs. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.