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For Maliki, Retaining Power Trumps Iraqi Unity

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki tours military posts on the outskirts of Baghdad on August 6. Can Maliki rise above sectarian divisions to finally unite Iraq?
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki tours military posts on the outskirts of Baghdad on August 6. Can Maliki rise above sectarian divisions to finally unite Iraq?
After almost eight years in power, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is showing signs he never wants to leave.

During his time in office he has increasingly concentrated authority in his own hands by fostering a patronage system of high-level civil servants and security officials who owe their positions to him. The appointments provide him a loyal power base but are raising mistrust between him and his political partners.

"Considering the ongoing political struggle, Maliki, by concentrating most powers in his hands, has put himself in an unenviable position. The Defense, Interior, and National Security ministries as well as the Intelligence Agency and secret service are all in his hands," says Wasat al-Hashimi, head of the Iraqi Group for Strategic Studies in Baghdad.

"The man does not have sufficient military experience to run such difficult portfolios. Lack of trust may be another important reason. Due to a deep crisis of confidence between Maliki and leaders of the other political factions, he trusts no one."

The perception that Maliki may be less interested in power sharing than in retaining power has grown as the country heads toward parliamentary elections due in March.

Maliki's supporters quashed a bill in parliament early this year that sought to limit prime ministers to two terms in office. The legislation would have forced Maliki, currently in his second term, to stay out of the next elections.

Now Maliki's supporters are reportedly planning to push back with a proposal to extend his current term in office by another eight months. The extension would be in compensation for the eight months lost in political wrangling after the 2010 legislative elections before the prime minister was named.

Widening The Sectarian Divide

Analysts say the rising distrust on all sides has a heavy cost. It further complicates efforts to build national unity just as the country suffers an upsurge of sectarian-based terrorist attacks.

In July, more than 1,000 people died in terrorist attacks across the country -- the most since 2008, when Iraq began to emerge from sectarian conflict. Most of the attacks are attributed to a resurgence of Al-Qaeda and similar groups that recruit among Sunnis who feel marginalized by the country's Shi'a-dominated government.

Crispin Hawes, head of Eurasia Group's Middle East and North Africa Program, says Maliki has never made good on promises to reintegrate minority Sunnis after they were banished from power with the ousting of dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

"He has very little interest in securing mass support within the Sunni Arab communities, largely based in western, northwestern Iraq, although he has done a very effective job of, from time to time, co-opting different political parties that represent elements of that community," Hawes says. "His main goal is to be prime minister of a large, somewhat amorphous Shi'ite coalition, which he can continue to dominate through a divide-and-conquer approach and he has proven exceptionally capable of doing this."

Maliki has angered Sunnis by targeting several of the community's most-powerful political leaders with arrest warrants on terrorism charges. They include former Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi in 2011 and former Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi in 2012. The prime minister portrayed the moves as nonsectarian judicial proceedings but Sunnis saw them as decapitating their leadership.

Within the ruling Shi'ite National Alliance, which includes all major Shi'ite religious parties, Maliki has maintained power by continually changing allies. The strategy has allowed Maliki, whose own Al-Dawah Party is one of multiple players, to retain leadership longer than many expected when he took power nearly eight years ago.

A Shaky Throne

But while Maliki has shown staying power in becoming the Republic of Iraq's longest-serving prime minister -- each of his two predecessors lasted just a year -- it is unclear whether he can yet deliver the stable and secure country he promised.

Many analysts see Maliki as locked into a game plan that today prevents him from rising above being a nimble sectarian leader to become a trusted national leader. So long as he fails to make the transition, they warn, Iraq will continue to suffer sectarian violence that ebbs and flows but never disappears.

Neil Partrick, a regional expert with the London School of Economics' Gulf Studies Program, notes that violence in Iraq is not merely terrorism. It is also a means by which the country's various political players -- many still equipped with militias -- demand a share of power.

"You can argue that when there has been violence on different sides it has to some extent been part of a bidding war for one community to put pressure on another to concede or to accommodate," Partrick observes. "And so I wouldn't necessarily see [the current upsurge of violence] as any different. The extent to which al-Maliki will be prepared to make substantive shifts, to actually move toward not just an inclusive government but a more inclusive state, that I am not sure about."

Partrick adds that the current regional situation around Iraq only compounds Maliki's difficulty in transcending his sectarian identity to become a national leader. The Iraqi prime minister supports the regime of Bashar al-Assad -- whose Alawite community practices an offshoot of Shi'ism -- against Syria's Sunni-led uprising and regards Shi'a-led Iran as an important ally. All are positions that sit well with Iraqi Shi'a but not Sunnis and increasingly complicate his country's relations with its key Western partners.

Written and reported by Charles Recknagel, with contributions by RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq correspondent Abdelilah Nuaimi

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