Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has many reasons to believe he should continue to serve as the chosen leader of Iraq. In fact, he has 721,000 of them.
That ballot tally delivered the then-two-term leader the April 30 elections with a landslide, handing him nearly 100,000 more popular votes than the last time he won at the polls, in 2010. Just a few months on, however, and Maliki is under increased pressure from both within and outside Iraq to step down.
Making room for a more conciliatory leadership might allow the country to unify in the face of a relentless push by the Al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters who have Baghdad in their sights and Maliki’s demise as a stated goal.
Maliki, a savvy political survivor, resisted moves on Wednesday to form an interim "national salvation" government, saying in his weekly televised address that delaying implementation of the April election results would be tantamount to "a coup against the constitution."
"We, despite the cruelty of the battle against terrorism, will remain loyal and faithful to the will and choices of the Iraqi people in bolstering their democratic experiment," said Maliki, who met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Baghdad earlier this week.
Maliki's State of the Law coalition won the most seats in April, 92 of the 328-seat chamber. He will need to build alliances to create a majority that would allow him to hold the job for another term, his third. The Legislature is expected to meet before the end of the month, when it will elect a speaker. It has 30 days to elect a new president, who in turn will select the leader of the majority bloc in the chamber to form the next government.
"We desperately need to take a comprehensive national stand to defeat terrorism, which is seeking to destroy our gains of democracy and freedom, set our differences aside and join efforts," Maliki said. "The danger facing Iraq requires all political groups to reconcile on the basis and principles of our constitutional democracy."
Maliki's supporters say he does not want to leave the helm when the country is in such disarray.
“People are rallying and marching behind Maliki because of ISIL,” his close friend and former parliamentarian Sami Askari told Reuters. “His chances are still strong.”
President Barack Obama said it wasn’t the job of the White House to choose Iraq’s leaders, but has indicated that whoever continues to lead the country must do a better job of promoting inclusive governance.
“I don’t think there’s any secret that right now at least there is deep divisions between Sunni, Shia and Kurdish leaders. And as long as those deep divisions continue or worsen, it’s going to be very hard for an Iraqi central government to direct an Iraqi military to deal with these threats,” Obama said last week.
But ultimately, Maliki’s immediate political future will come down to whether he chooses to put his interests and those of his majority Shia supporters ahead of national unity and reconciliation.
“If the mindset is ‘We value the unity of Iraq, we think the Shia and the Kurds, if we work together we can defeat ISIL and keep the country in one piece,’ then Maliki may well go,” said Michael Knights of the Washington Institute.
“If instead they say, ‘We stick together as a sect, we fight these people into the ground with the help of Iran,’ then Maliki’s fine.”
Even before the national elections in April, Maliki’s political opponents said he shouldn’t have a third term in office. The highest Shia religious authority in the country, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, at the time signaled his disappointment with Maliki’s rule, his representative calling on Iraqis during a Friday sermon to vote for officials who would change the country’s “terrible conditions.” Sistani had issued a fatwa earlier in the year advising Iraqis to “choose wisely” and opt for those working for the people and fighting corruption.
Shia political opponents who were unhappy with him then are livid now. “He doesn’t have the right to a third term,” Shia politician Dhiaa al-Asadi was quoted as saying. “We are sure we can remove Mr. Maliki through constitutional means.”
Meanwhile, Sunni politicians who already felt alienated before the current crisis also rule out a third term. “They must change him if they want things to calm down,” said Nabil al-Kashab, a political adviser to the Sunni former speaker of parliament.
But it is clear that Maliki will not go anywhere unless that pressure also begins to come from Iran. And rather than criticize Maliki’s leadership, Tehran has chosen to focus on the sudden re-engagement from Washington and the deployment of 300 U.S. special forces operatives back to Iraq. Last week Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused the United States of “seeking an Iraq under its hegemony and ruled by its stooges.”
"We are strongly opposed to U.S. and other intervention in Iraq," the official IRNA news agency quoted Khamenei as saying. "We don’t approve of it, as we believe the Iraqi government, nation and religious authorities are capable of ending the sedition."
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani blamed the current security calamities on predominantly Sunni Gulf states, saying they were backing ISIL fighters in the hope of unseating the Shia-dominated leadership in Iraq. "We emphatically tell those Islamic states and all others funding terrorists with their petrodollars that these terrorist savages you have set on other people’s lives will come to haunt you,” he was quoted as saying on Sunday.
Iran has spent the years since Saddam Hussein’s ouster investing in its Shia ties with Iraq. It has cultivated Shia militias that it is not ready to abandon, wrote Mohsen Milani, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies at the University of South Florida, in Foreign Affairs.
“Iran is not likely to undo all that progress by abandoning its ally; solidarity is a mainstay of the political rhetoric of ... Khamenei,” Milani wrote. “But this is not simply a matter of personal loyalty. Iran’s strategic priority in Iraq is ensuring that Iraq’s government remains dominated by Shia, with or without Maliki at the helm.”
To that end, other Shia contenders have started to emerge as possible successors, each with his own strengths and weaknesses. Some are familiar faces who in the past failed to win enough votes or enough confidence.
Adil Abdul-Mahdi, a Shia leader who has good relations with the Kurds, is being mentioned as a possible replacement for Maliki. He was once a vice president and came within a vote of taking the job of prime minister, only to lose to Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the man Maliki ended up replacing when civil war was on the verge of erupting in Iraq in 2006.
Another potential candidate is Bayan Jaber, also a Shia, who served as finance minister in the former government. Yet he too is seen by some as a problematic choice: As interior minister during the worst of the sectarian crisis in 2007, he is alleged to have allowed the abuse and torture of prisoners and was reluctant to heed U.S. military advice to include more Sunnis within the security forces.
Some other reports float Maliki’s own adviser Tariq Najm, and fellow party member Ali Adeeb, who is considered to be even more sectarian than Maliki.
If and who they ultimately decide to nominate, Maliki and his bloc will have to assess a new political reality for the Shia parties, which includes again the resurgence of radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army has regrouped and is strengthening its position in areas around Baghdad, waiting for ISIL to make its move.
“He’s kept his focus on Baghdad; is he going to take advantage of that?” asked the Washington Institute’s Knights. “This might be a time for him to reconsolidate control.”
Beyond the inter-Shia politics lies a broader question: Even if Maliki goes, will his departure bridge the deep divide between the Sunnis and the Shias in this new Iraq? Sunnis enjoyed tremendous benefits under Saddam and have been reluctant to accept the new reality of a Shia-majority-dominated government. Many of its senior leadership fled to Syria and Jordan after the U.S.-led invasion, and with the backing of Sunni states, including Saudi Arabia, have been part of the current rebellion.
Throughout the political reformation following Saddam’s ouster, Sunni politicians showed great difficulty in accepting that population numbers are not on their side.
Shias, meanwhile, after suffering for decades under Saddam, have exhibited little willingness to share power or resources with Sunnis. Shia parliamentarians resisted moves to end the de-Baathification law that worked to find and punish senior leaders in Saddam’s Baathist regime. There was intransigence and failure to compromise on both sides.
The test will come on July 1, when the new government talks are meant to begin, and Iraq’s leaders too will have to demonstrate whether they place the unity and survival of their country ahead of their own sectarian political ambitions.