Features & Analysis The Conspiratorial Mind of Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki
15/08/2012 01:57

By Joel Wing*

Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki lived in exile for over twenty years, while Saddam Hussein was in power. As a member of the outlawed Islamic Dawa Party, he felt like his life was in danger, and ended up fleeing to Syria and Iran. During his years living abroad, he was in a world of intrigue facing internal divisions within Dawa, having to deal with government and intelligence officials from Tehran and Damascus, and the other exile opposition parties. Back in Iraq, Dawa was conducting an armed struggle against the regime, leading to constant round-ups and executions, meaning that Maliki was always under threat from Baghdad’s agents. Those long years away from home, shaped Maliki, and how he saw politics. After the U.S. invasion in 2003, Maliki returned to Iraq mistrustful of others, and with a conspiratorial mind, which has played a large role in how he has governed as premier.

An example of how Maliki’s history played a role in his leadership style was how he reacted to the formation of the Sons of Iraq (SOI) during the Surge. In early 2007, tribes, insurgents, and others began organizing in places like Diyala against Al Qaeda in Iraq. In June, General David Petraeus decided to support the formation of Sunni groups to fight the insurgency, as part of the Surge’s overall strategy of trying to separate those that were capable of reconciling from those who were not. While the prime minister agreed to set up a committee to deal with the SOI, he and his officials relentlessly attacked the program at the same time. They said the fighters would eventually turn against the government, because they were full of Al Qaeda members, insurgents, and Baathists. As a result, Baghdad refused to pay them as the U.S. continually asked them to do, and threatened to disband the SOI units as soon as the fighting was over. (1) Since many of the SOI were militants it was no surprise that the prime minister would refuse to accept them. In 2007, Iraq was still in the middle of a very bloody sectarian civil war, so it was understandable that a Shiite politician would be weary of a bunch of Sunni fighters put together by a foreign power. Where Maliki’s past came in to play was how he interpreted the SOI program. The Americans continually tried to convince the prime minister that the Sons of Iraq were a positive development since it was draining away support from militants, and helping to improve security. Instead, Maliki took the SOI as a plot by the Americans to overthrow his government. He continuously refuted the U.S.’s explanations, and instead thought in terms of conspiracies. To him, the only reason why the Coalition forces could be working with people who were formally fighting the government was to undermine it. That’s why even though Maliki agreed to integrate the SOI in December, he continued to deride them, and more than four years later there are still 30,000 fighters without public jobs as they were promised. To this day, Maliki still appears to be weary of the Sons of Iraq.

When Iraq held parliamentary elections in March 2010, the prime minister cried foul. As soon as the results were made public, and his rival Iraqi National Movement (INM) came out as the winner, Maliki claimed that it had cheated. He said that up to 750,000 votes were involved, which had cost his State of Law list 11 seats in parliament, enough to make it the winner. The premier said that the Election Commission was responsible, and was working for his opponents, and the United States, which was against his re-election. He ended up calling for a recount, but it did not change the results. Maliki then blamed that on the United Nations and the United States for not listening to his complaints, and trying to impose what he considered unfair election results upon him. It didn’t end there. The next year, State of Law accused the Election Commission of being pro-INM, and ran an unsuccessful no confidence vote against it in parliament in July 2011. Again, Maliki revealed the same set of thinking as he did with the Sons of Iraq. He was convinced that everyone was arrayed against him from the Iraqi National Movement to the Election Commission to the United Nations to the United States. He believed that all of them were working together to deny him a second term in office by fixing the 2010 vote, and forcing the results upon him in a grand plot.

That wasn’t the end of the drama surrounding the 2010 election. As the Iraqi National Movement continued to oppose Maliki and attempted to hold a no confidence vote against him, Maliki saw another group of players opposing him. Before and after the voting, INM leaders like Iyad Allawi and Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi made a number of regional tours to countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and others. All of those countries supported the National Movement during the vote. State of Law took those trips as a sign that all those powers were working with the National Movement to depose him. To Maliki, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the others were trying to bring back Sunni rule in Iraq, and that’s why he believed that they were behind the INM and the no confidence vote.

Finally, nothing seems to be beyond Maliki’s conspiratorial thinking. Iraq has had electricity problems since the 1991 Gulf War when most of its infrastructure was bombed. Maliki’s government has consistently said that it would fix the power grid, but supply has never met demand. There are constant black outs as a result, and protests have broken out in the last three years as well. Instead of blaming poor planning or other issues, State of Law instead pointed the finger at a regional plot. In August 2012, a State of Law politician claimed that foreign countries were working with officials within the Electricity Ministry to cut production, undermine its development programs all in an attempt to bring down the government. It would not be surprising if Maliki saw this as a continuation of the 2010 election as his rivals have failed to get rid of him politically, so now they are attempting to foster a public uprising against him. It seems like Maliki and his followers are incapable of analyzing any event without thinking of it as some sort of covert plan by their enemies to destroy them.

The years spent abroad gave Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki a distorted view of politics. Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group has postulated that Maliki’s apprehensions and fears served him well as an exile since he survived those turbulent times, but that those are exactly the wrong characteristics to be a leader of a country. The prime minister is not just playing hardball tactics or trying to grab power for power’s sake. Instead, his time in exile has made him paranoid that his enemies are constantly working against him. At one time or another he has seen the Sons of Iraq, the United States, the United Nations, the Election Commission, the Iraqi National Movement, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar as all plotting against him. This is the reason why he has concentrated more and more authority in his hands. To him, and too many others of Iraq’s ruling elite, politics are a zero sum game. If Maliki didn’t assume control of the security forces for instance, his rivals would, and they would use it against him. He therefore believes he must take those types of actions to survive in post-Saddam Iraq. The fact that this has increased opposition to him only makes Maliki more paranoid that various forces are ganging up against him rather than attempting to compromise and defuse the situation. The prime minister’s mindset simply does not allow him to change, meaning that there will be future crises and continued deadlock, which Maliki will all see as plots and conspiracies against him.

*With an MA in International Relations, Joel Wing has been researching and writing about Iraq since 2002. His acclaimed blog, Musings on Iraq, is currently listed by the New York Times and the World Politics Review. In addition, Mr. Wing’s work has been cited by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Guardian and the Washington Independent.