On October 1, 2009 Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki officially announced his State of Law list that would compete in the 2010 parliamentary elections. Almost every Western report on his coalition mentioned how broad it was, that it was non-sectarian, and how the Prime Minister was running a nationalist campaign. Recently however, Maliki has been emphasizing sectarian politics by warning of the return of Baathists.
On November 12, 2009 for example, Maliki went to a meeting of tribal leaders in Sadr City, Baghdad and said that Iraq’s enemies were trying to undermine the political process during the elections. Three days later he was more specific when he said that Baathists were trying to use the 2010 vote to get back into power, and that he would never let that happen. Then on November 16 at a press conference Maliki said that Baathists would not be allowed to participate in the upcoming elections in any form, and that all talks with them by the government were banned. Maliki has been emphasizing the Baathist threat to Iraq since the August 2009 Baghdad bombings, which he blamed on former regime elements in Syria. In fact, the government aired a new set of video taped confessions on November 22 of three men who claimed they were Baath party members who carried out the October 25, 2009 attacks on Iraq’s Ministry of Justice and Baghdad provincial council offices. In Iraqi politics, whenever Shiite politicians mention Baathists they are talking about the threat of Sunnis returning to power, just as talk about Iranian influence by Sunnis is about Shiite rule.
Maliki’s rhetoric has angered one of his State of Law coalition partners, Sheikh Ali Hatem Sulaiman. He is the head of the Al-Anbar Tribal Council and the Flags of Iraq Party, and was one of the leaders of the Awakening movement there. The sheikh said that those who keep talking about Baathists sound like a broken record, and that Baathists should be able to participate in elections as long as they don’t have any charges against them. He finished by saying that if Baathists were to be truly banned from Iraqi politics, than half of the Sunnis in Anbar would not be able to participate. This is significant because Sheikh Sulaiman was the only notable Sunni politician Maliki was able to draw into his list. He is a minor player however as his party wasn’t able to win a single seat in Anbar in the 2009 elections, and Maliki’s Dawa Party is firmly in the lead of the coalition.
Of more interest is the fact that Ammar al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and member of the Iraqi National Alliance issued a statement saying that Baathists should be able to take part in Iraqi politics as long as they didn’t have blood on their hands. The Supreme Council has always been one of the most ardent proponents of using the Baathist card against any moves towards reconciliation with Sunnis, and only recently called for the banning of Baathists from the 2010 vote as well. His release was almost certainly a response to Maliki’s comments as the National Alliance is the State of Law’s main challenger.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Sadrists, the other major players in the National Alliance, both attacked Maliki and supported him at the same time. First, a Sadrist parliamentarian said that the authorities faked the November 22 confessions of the alleged bombers. At the same time, Moqtada al-Sadr, echoing the Prime Minister, said that there could never be reconciliation with the Baathists. This shows both that Maliki’s attempt to play sectarian politics with the Baghdad attacks is widely questioned within Iraq, while talking about Baathists still resonates in Shiite politics.
The Prime Minister’s emphasis upon the Baathist threat could be a sign of his foreboding about the coming election. While Maliki is still the most popular politician in Iraq, the August and October 2009 ministry bombings in Baghdad have hurt his claim that he has brought security and stability to the country, so bringing up Baathists is a way for him to defer blame. He also has not been able to bring in any new significant partners into his coalition. Some believe that that his announcements are aimed at his potential rivals, specifically the Iraqi National Movement of former Prime Minister Ilyad Allawi, parliamentarian Saleh al-Mutlaq of the National Dialogue Council, and Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi. Finally, a return to sectarian politics may be a way for him to firm up his base with Shiites, and distract them from more pressing issues like the continued lack of services and corruption in the government.
Ali, Ahmed, “Iraq’s Elections Challenge: A Shifting Political Landscape,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 11/20/09
Alsumaria, “Maliki warns of enemies ahead of elections,” 11/12/09
Aswat al-Iraq, “PM warns of Baathists’ infiltration through election,” 11/15/09
Chon, Gina, “Maliki Coalition Tries to Bridge Iraq’s Deep Sectarian Divisions,” Wall Street Journal, 10/2/09
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Roads To Iraq, “Ba’ath Party and the election – intro,” 11/24/09
- “Ba’ath Party and the election 1,” 11/24/09
- “Disagreement among the “State of Law” and The political-football crisis,” 11/17/09
Al Sabah, “PMi: No talk with Ba’athists,” 11/17/09
Shadid, Anthony, “Maliki Creates Coalition To Compete in Iraqi Vote,” Washington Post, 10/2/09