Abadi champions reforms but his target is Maliki
Iraq’s former prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, was in neighbouring Iran in mid-August, attending a major Shia conference, meeting top officials and granting interviews. It was a good time to be away.
Political and anti-corruption reforms launched by Maliki’s successor, Haider al-Abadi, were an evident attempt to eradicate the cronyism and sectarianism that marked Maliki’s eight years as head of government.
In addition, the parliament in Baghdad had just approved a report blaming Maliki and other officials for the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State (ISIS) in June 2014.
Maliki topped a list of more than 30 senior officials accused in parliament’s security committee report of alleged negligence in choosing corrupt officers who failed to adequately confront the ISIS threat. However, despite the threat by parliament Speaker Salim al-Jabouri that “no one is above the law and accountability”, there were doubts in Baghdad that Maliki would ever face trial.
He dismissed the report as worthless and lashed out at his domestic critics, switching the blame on Turkey and the Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil for the Mosul debacle. Maliki used the Iran trip to blame almost everyone but himself for the ISIS phenomenon.
“ISIS was a movement created by certain regional states, headed by Saudi Arabia, with sectarian and political goals,” he told an Iranian news agency. “ISIS is supported by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, as Ankara sought to overthrow President (Bashar) Assad’s government,” he claimed.
At the opening session of the Shia conference, a meeting of the Ahl al-Bayt World Assembly, he went further, accusing Israel and Saudi Arabia of plotting the break-up of Iraq. “Today we are witnesses to the coalition of Zionism and Wahhabism against the resistance axis and this is a civil war, as they use local facilities in the Islamic countries,” Maliki said. “Therefore, in order to defeat it, we need to use all our state facilities, legal apparatus and mass media.”
For all the bluster, there was little disguising the fact that Maliki was on the back foot after operating as a divisive éminence grise during the first year of his successor’s term.
The critical report on Mosul has been passed on to legal authorities and could theoretically lead to action against Maliki, while Abadi’s decision to trim a range of top posts — broadly reflecting Iraq’s sectarian divide — strips Maliki of his post as one of three vice-presidents.
Maliki has publicly backed the reforms that were announced after weeks of popular demonstrations against corruption and shortages of electricity and fresh water, exacerbated by a blistering summer.
Abadi also moved to trim the swollen ranks of ministerial aides and advisers to demonstrate his willingness to initiate long-needed reforms.
This also allowed him to get rid of troublesome rivals.
If Maliki had been tempted to challenge the reforms or stir Shia opposition against them, he was trumped by an intervention from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s senior and widely revered Shia spiritual guide, who endorsed the moves and urged Abadi to “strike with an iron fist” those involved in corruption. That has won Abadi widespread popular Shia support for the reforms, which parliament has backed, and his challenge is now to make them work before potential opponents have the opportunity to exploit any failure.
Sistani was also quoted as saying abuse of power by Iraqi politicians who had failed to consider the interests of the Iraqi people had fostered the progress of ISIS. “If true reform is not realised by fighting corruption without mercy and realising social justice on different levels, it is expected that circumstances will become worse,” he warned.
With Maliki ostensibly left out in the cold, and possibly facing prosecution over Mosul, there was speculation he might prolong his stay in Iran. However, he returned home August 19th and encountered no problems re-entering Iraq, according to his spokesman.
Asked about his political future, Maliki told a Tehran Times reporter that he was happy to sacrifice his official role so reforms could go ahead in response to the popular protests.
He claimed the Iraqi government had been seeking an opportunity to institute reforms for years “but there were a lot of problems and challenges that were compounded by sectarianism crises, terrorist groups and the interference of foreign countries in Iraq’s internal affairs”.
He gave no indication, however, that he was ready to withdraw from Iraqi politics. He remains head of the State of Law coalition, the largest single bloc in parliament. “A real politician” did not just derive his power from holding an official position, he said in Iran in a clear signal he has no intention of bowing out.