W.G. Dunlop, AFP
Last updated: 11 August, 2014

Maliki, Iraq’s rebel-turned-PM trying to cling to power

Nuri al-Maliki, Iraq’s rebel-turned-leader who Monday saw his bid for a third term fall apart, rose from anonymous exile to powerful premier but lost support as the country’s security collapsed.

President Fuad Masum tasked Haidar al-Abadi, a member of Maliki’s Dawa party, with forming a new government, ignoring the two-term premier’s defiant insistence that he should keep the top job.

Maliki, a 63-year-old Shiite Arab, had previously said he would sue Masum, a Kurd, for violating the constitution, and ordered a massive security deployment in Baghdad.

It is a dramatic shift from 2006, when Maliki was regarded as a weak compromise candidate who emerged from the shadows to become premier.

He has since undergone several transformations, from a nationalist who battled militias within his own Shiite community and brought violence under control to being accused of amassing power and sidelining partners.

Maliki’s past eight years were markedly different from his life before the 2003 US-led invasion.

Born Nuri Kamal al-Maliki in a predominantly Shiite town south of Baghdad, he joined the Islamic Dawa party — the oldest Iraqi movement opposed to Saddam Hussein — while at university.

He fled in 1979 after the dictator banned the party, and Dawa says he was later sentenced to death in absentia.

From 1980, he lived in Iran and then Syria, where he edited Dawa’s newspaper. In exile, he adopted the nom de guerre Jawad and coordinated cross-border raids from Iran into Iraq.

He returned after Saddam’s ouster in the 2003 US-led invasion and became a member of the de-Baathification commission that barred Saddam supporters from public office.

– Thrust to power –

In 2006, the dour bespectacled politician was named premier after his predecessor Ibrahim al-Jaafari, also a Shiite, was regarded as too sectarian by Sunnis and Kurds.

Thrust to power at the height of Iraq’s brutal sectarian war that killed thousands of people each month, Maliki was seen then as politically weak.

But he stayed in office and pursued an offensive against the militia of powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr with US military backing in 2008.

The successful assault won him plaudits across the communal spectrum, and he staked his reputation as a nationalist leader who had brought Iraq’s raging violence under some semblance of control.

Under Maliki, American forces withdrew in late 2011 and oil production has steadily increased.

Since being re-elected premier in 2010 at the head of a national unity government, however, Maliki has faced near-constant political crises.

His critics accuse him of consolidating power, particularly within the security forces, and blame him for a sharp deterioration in security.

Maliki responded to the rising bloodshed, which has spiked since April 2013, with wide-ranging military operations that resulted in hundreds of arrests but failed to curb the violence.

And he made little in the way of meaningful concessions to Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority, whose widespread anger with the Shiite-led government has been a major factor in the increased violence.

Iraqi security forces lost control of all of one city and part of another west of Baghdad to insurgents early this year, and jihadist-led militants launched a sweeping offensive in June that has overrun large areas of five provinces.

Maliki has steadfastly blamed external factors such as the civil war in Syria for the surge in unrest, making no mention of the role his government and policies have played.

But as the crisis dragged on, Maliki lost support from Washington and even some members of his own Shiite majority, and his bid to maintain power seems to have been irreparably damaged.