Reports that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki may be becoming a strongman have become part and parcel of Iraq reporting today. In the Spring 2009 edition of World Policy Journal Los Angeles Times’ reporter Ned Parker laid out a good argument for this in an article entitled “Machiavelli in Mesopotamia.” Parker’s position is that Maliki has successfully used a divide and conquer and carrot and stick approach with various groups across the country that is a move towards authoritarian government. The Prime Minister has also promised security and stability for a population that has been traumatized by the invasion and civil war. This has them looking towards a leader, Maliki, rather than institutions or democracy to provide a normal life, allowing the Prime Minister to become an autocrat.
This change in Iraq began with the end of the sectarian war in 2007. The Shiites won, and the Sunnis were defeated. This was shown when the majority of the insurgency switched sides to the Americans to escape the pressure from the Surge, Iraqi forces, Shiite militias, and Al Qaeda in Iraq. With the threat of the insurgency largely contained, Maliki was freed to move against his former supporter Moqtada al-Sadr. In 2008 Maliki sent the Iraqi army and police to crush the Mahdi Army in Basra, Sadr City, and Maysan. By mid-2008 the government was now free of two of its largest threats. In turn, this changed Maliki’s image from a weak and feckless leader to a nationalist one willing to impose order from the chaos that was engulfing Iraq.
Parker provides three examples of how Maliki has used his newfound power and position since then. First, the Prime Minister built up his own independent base by forming Tribal Support Councils across southern Iraq. These became a huge patronage system for Maliki, which helped his State of Law list win a majority in Basra, and pluralities in the rest of the south in the 2009 provincial elections. In Diyala, the Prime Minister used force to try to break the alliance between the Iraqi Islamic Party and the Sons of Iraq. In July 2008 and May 2009, he used the security forces to arrest and intimidate Sunni leaders, while trying to peel others away to join his Tribal Support Councils. Finally, in the Saydiya district of Baghdad, Maliki convinced the local Sunnis there that he was the center of power. At first, they felt intimidated into electing a Shiite from the SIIC’s Badr Brigade to head the local council, but later when that same official was arrested, the Sunnis took it to be a sign that Maliki had turned against the Shiite militia, and that he was becoming a fair and just ruler. All of these moves are examples of the carrot and stick, divide and conquer strategy Maliki has employed since 2008. He has wooed both Sunnis and Shiites to his side, while threatening others with the security forces and the threat of arrests. It shows that the new status quo in Iraq is not based upon the rule of law or institutions, but rather the relationship between individuals and groups to the Prime Minister. He is now the center of Iraqi politics, able to wield his power to give some jobs and position, or to send others to jail.
Parker believes that the new Iraq that has emerged from the sectarian war is actually a return to its autocratic tradition. After the bloody years of the past, the most important thing to Iraqis is stability so that they can return to their normal lives. This is what Maliki has offered them. He has crushed or wooed his opponents including the Shiite militias and the Sons of Iraq, while offering protection, jobs and patronage to those that side with him such as Iraq’s tribes. It’s one man, Maliki that the people now look to. He represents the Iraqi state, much as Saddam or other past Iraqi leaders did. This is what makes “Machiavelli in Mesopotamia” one of the better arguments for the strongman theory that is becoming popular in analyses of Iraq. It is still up to debate however, whether Maliki is really moving in this direction. Many of the powers he is assuming are those that the government should have, but that it was not able to exert since it was so weak after the U.S. invasion. A regular government for example, should have a monopoly on force, so Baghdad should’ve cracked down on the Shiite militias. At the same time, Maliki has built up organizations like the Tribal Support Councils, which are outside the authority of the government, and used the security forces to take care of his opponents. Iraq seems to have gone from one extreme where the state had no real authority to where Maliki is using it everywhere for his own ends. Now however, the new speaker of the parliament is trying to strengthen the legislature to provide a check on Maliki’s power. This will be the real test as to whether the Prime Minister can become an autocrat. If he can shape the parliament after the 2010 elections then there will be no others in the country that can limit him.
Nordland, Rod and Santora, Marc, “Iraq Leader Omits a Bit in Lauding U.S. Pullout,” New York Times, 6/11/09
Parker, Ned, “Machiavelli in Mesopotamia,” World Policy Journal, Spring 2009
- “U.S. prepares to withdraw, Iraqi resistance prepares for battle,” Los Angeles Times, 5/25/09
Rosen, Nir, “The big sleep,” The National, 4/24/09
Russo, Claire, “Countdown To Diyala’s Provincial Election: Maliki & The IIP,” Institute for the Study of War, 1/30/09
Serwer, Daniel and Parker, Sam, “Maliki’s Iraq between Two Elections,” United States Institute of Peace, May 2009
Shadid, Anthony, “In Iraq, a Different Struggle for Power,” Washington Post, 6/25/09
Wiseman, Paul, “U.S.-supported Iraqi militias clash with government,” USA Today, 5/27/09