Ever since Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki won a second term in December 2010, the internal coherence and parliamentary support base of the Iraqi cabinet have been in dispute. But despite a proliferation of challenges in the past few months—and signs of further deteriorating support in parliament—al-Maliki remains, and his opponents are struggling to mount a concerted move to unseat him.
In the past 18 months, al-Maliki’s most steadfast critics have come from the secular- and Sunni-backed Iraqiyya Movement, which has seen nothing of the new power-sharing institutions that were promised in return for its consent to al-Maliki’s second term—including the much-discussed National Strategic Policy Council that would have a national security oversight role and be chaired by Iyad Allawi. The confrontation between Iraqiyya and al-Maliki escalated only hours after the US withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011, when the Iraqi judiciary issued a terrorism-related arrest warrant for Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi—a move seen as politicized because of its conspicuous timing.
Kurdish parties have joined Iraqiyya in calling for al-Maliki to be sacked. Since early 2012, the Kurdish parties (which have 43 deputies in parliament) have backed Iraqiyya (with 85 deputies), as they are also dissatisfied with al-Maliki’s hollow promises—including previous agreements on oil exports from Iraqi Kurdistan. In April, Kurdistan unilaterally halted petroleum exports in protest over a payment dispute with the central government.
Yet unlike in previous challenges, the Sadrists have sided actively with the prime minister’s critics. Sadrists’ votes clinched Maliki’s premiership back in 2010, and their emergence now as a possible “swing vote” that might help the Kurds and Iraqiyya to unseat him is indeed significant. Only the Sadrists have a bloc of deputies (around 40) sufficient enough among al-Maliki’s umbrella alliance of Shi‘a parties to take the anti-Maliki bloc past the critical absolute-majority mark of 163 MPs required for a no-confidence vote in parliament.
But whether the Sadrists are truly serious about unseating al-Maliki is not yet clear, and signs of their earnestness have been limited thus far. Having first contributed to the dramatic 15-day April ultimatum calling on al-Maliki to implement the political agreements with the Kurds and Iraqiyya, the Sadrists have since modified their radical rhetoric against the prime minister somewhat, suggesting that the move was intended to make him change his ways rather than remove him at any cost. Subsequent to the 15-day ultimatum’s expiration, a second gathering in Najaf of Iraqi leaders under Sadrist auspices in mid-May failed to produce any decisive follow-ups after their bluff had been called. Another 1-week ultimatum similarly passed without any decisive action.
Given the heavy influence that Iran wields over the Sadrists, their new position can shed much light on Iran’s current strategy in Iraq. While Sadr’s movement was once considered a native Iraqi movement with considerable autonomy from regional patrons, its followers were pushed into Iran’s arms after the U.S. army began to target them—at times with lethal force—after 2007. Their leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, resides in Iran for long periods—further adding to Tehran’s influence and leverage over him—and it seems unlikely that Iran would allow him to travel freely between the two countries if his activities were seen as subversive to Iranian interests. Thus, if Iran truly feared a move to unseat al-Maliki, it would have plenty of economic and security-related leverage to employ against the Sadrists.
Iran may be playing with the discontent of Iraqiyya and the Kurds by allowing al-Sadr to temporarily join in on the pressure against al-Maliki—without actually unseating him. Such an approach could serve several ends. A crisis with al-Maliki immediately before the P5+1 meeting on Iran’s nuclear file in Baghdad on May 23 could highlight Iranian leverage in Iraq. It has been suggested that the United States could be willing to cede influence in Iraq to Iran in return for compromises on the nuclear track. Second, Sadrist pressure on al-Maliki could serve as a reminder that Iran dislikes an independent-minded and perhaps overpowerful Iraqi prime minister; Iran has actually been far more insistent on the need for maintaining a power-sharing government in Iraq than al-Maliki himself has. In this respect, it is noteworthy that the Sadrists and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq—both generally seen as closer to Iran than the prime minister’s own State of Law faction– have been among al-Maliki’s loudest critics in the past two years, particularly whenever Maliki has signaled exasperation with the current oversized, power-sharing cabinet and has spoken in favor of a more compact government of the “political majority.”
Beyond the calculations of Iranian strategy, the inability to unseat the prime minister also reflects that his counter-strategies are succeeding. For one, al-Maliki has been able to successfully play the Kirkuk card. Kirkuk, which is a hotly disputed city among Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen, was declared “an Iraqi city” a few weeks ago during al-Maliki’s cabinet meeting there—a bold nationalist assertion which has curried favor with Iraqiyya voters unhappy with the way their own leadership is cozying up to the Kurds. These same voters are fearful this may involve compromises with respect to Kirkuk and other disputed territories. Al-Maliki’s declaration follows on the heels of similar outreach to Sunni tribal elements in provinces like Anbar and Salahaddin with the aim of confronting growing pro-federalism trends in those areas and tying their destinies more firmly to the central government. Finally, al-Maliki has had some success in sowing disunity among the Kurds themselves on the subject of removing him from power—ably exploiting the fact that the PUK faction of President Jalal Talabani seems more reluctant than the other Kurdish parties. The prime minister has also apparently been able to reach a deal with his embattled deputy premier from Iraqiyya, Saleh al-Mutlaq—whose return to cabinet is considered imminent.
Throughout these moves, al-Maliki has hedged his bets against a vote of no confidence. Should the Sadrists decide to join the push for an ouster, al-Maliki’s strategy has to some extent split the Iraqiyya and Kurdish blocs. In an indication of how the “northern factor” translates into parliamentary arithmetic, no less than 19 deputies from Iraqiyya and Iraqiyya breakaway groups pledged support a few weeks ago to al-Maliki—including 12 MPs who nominally remain within Iraqiyya. Most are Sunni MPs who are dissatisfied with the policies of the Iraqiyya leadership toward the disputed territories. In a vote, Iraqiyya could probably muster no more than 75 votes from its 85 deputies. This by itself makes it unlikely that a combination of Iraqiyya, Kurds, and the Sadrists could vote out the prime minister, even with a high attendance in parliament (the Iraqi parliament is normally not more than two-thirds full).
Al-Maliki should take note though: unless he is able to expand his own coalition and formally co-opt at least some of his newfound friends into his State of Law Alliance (if not into the Daawa party itself), his position will remain vulnerable to both domestic challengers and regional machinations alike for the rest of his second term.
Reidar Visser is an historian of Iraq who blogs at www.historiae.org.