In a scene surprising to many, a smiling Nouri al-Maliki disembarked from an Iraqi airliner July 18 in the city of Sulaimaniyah and was received by senior officials from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two major parties in Iraqi Kurdistan. Maliki said his visit was merely a normal meeting with PUK and Gorran (Movement of Change) leaders in the wake of the two parties' having formed an alliance earlier this year. Many also noted, however, that the trip was taking place amid unconfirmed reports of his hopes of taking back the premiership from Haider al-Abadi, a fellow Islamic Dawa member and that party's leader. General elections are due to be held in 2018.
Once thought as poised to become Iraq's new strongman of sorts, Maliki had to vacate the office of prime minister in 2014, with many blaming him for the dramatic territorial sweep of the Islamic State (IS) through Iraq. Defying expectations that his reluctant relinquishing of the premiership would spell his end, Maliki has been working relentlessly behind the scenes for the past two years to retain the stature of a powerful politician and is now reported to be preparing for a comeback.
Maliki's visit to the Kurdistan region came at a time of deep fissures among the major Kurdish factions and disagreement over how to deal with the government in Baghdad. The two dominant parties in Sulaimaniyah, the PUK and Gorran, formed an alliance in mid-May that has put them at odds with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Led by Massoud Barzani, acting president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the KDP is the dominant party in the Kurdish government and has adopted rhetoric highly critical of Maliki. Whereas the KDP publicly advocates secession from Iraq, or at least greater powers for the Kurdish region in the form of a confederal structure, the PUK and Gorran favor reconciliation with Baghdad and exhausting all available options before any decision to push for statehood.
Against this backdrop, many have questioned Maliki's motive for visiting PUK-Gorran representatives and ignoring the KDP at a time of such acute political rivalry among Iraqi Kurds. “Whether Maliki’s visit was as innocent as he said or not, suspicions about his real intentions can only deepen when it is rumored … that Maliki is plotting to form a new alliance with the aim of returning to power as prime minister,” said Kamran Karadaghi, a veteran Iraqi Kurdish journalist and former chief of staff to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, also the PUK's leader.
“During his two terms as Iraq’s prime minister [2006-14], Maliki became a controversial and divisive figure,” Karadaghi added. “As such, his Sulaimaniyah visit has stirred problems in Kurdistan. I am afraid Maliki’s visit has had a negative impact on efforts to overcome differences between the Kurdish parties.”
Maliki's past relationship with the Kurds was a troubled one, reaching a tipping point when he withheld the Kurdistan region's share of the Iraqi budget in early 2014 after the KRG sold oil independently against Baghdad's wishes. In addition, Barzani had been a main figure in attempts to unseat Maliki in 2012 in a failed no-confidence motion in the parliament. The PUK's Talabani did not support the effort to remove Maliki from power. Thus, it is of no surprise that Maliki's visit stirred controversy among the Kurds.
“I believe that if Maliki had good intentions, he should have visited Erbil, too,” KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani told reporters July 19, expressing his doubts about what Maliki seeks to achieve by his visit. Erbil is the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan and is dominated by the KDP. It remains to be seen, however, whether Maliki is actually seeking closer relations with the PUK-Gorran alliance to effectively weaken the KDP, as some suspect.
Maliki also attempted to exude an air of optimism about settling the ever-deepening disputes between the KRG and Baghdad governments. “There is a lot of hope for resolving the budget dispute between Baghdad and Erbil,” Maliki said during a joint news conference with Mala Bakhtiyar, a senior PUK leader, on July 18. “Since we have a constitution, that means we can resolve all the problems. The budget issue can be addressed on the basis of the constitution.” According to Iraq's budget laws in the past years, the KRG is entitled to around 17% of the country's budget.
While KDP officials and affiliated media took the lead in slamming Maliki's visit, PUK officials have been struggling to defend their largely warm reception of him while denying that the visit had anything to do with Maliki's alleged prime ministerial ambitions or trying to deepen Kurdish discord.
“Maliki wants to see KRG-Baghdad relations improved,” Saadi Pira, a member of the PUK's political bureau, told Al-Monitor. “He was not here to discuss his premiership and gather support for [obtaining] it.”
Pira also downplayed critical statements by the Kurdish prime minister, saying Nechirvan Barzani had met with Maliki during Barzani's last visit to the Iraqi capital. He added that Maliki — as the head of the State of Law Coalition, the largest Shiite bloc in the Iraqi parliament — has an opportunity to again become premier if the Shiite groups approve, so the Kurds should not destroy their ties with him.
“Maliki's and other people’s visits won't create divisions in Kurdistan,” Pira said. He remarked that the discord among Kurdish parties was the result of internal Kurdish disputes over power-sharing, including the posts of KRG president and parliament speaker. Gorran has led efforts to reduce Massoud Barzani's powers or, alternatively, remove him from the presidency, which triggered the KDP illegally preventing Speaker Yousif Mohammed Sadiq, a Gorran member, from entering Erbil.
Whether Maliki can regain the coveted office of prime minister is unclear at this point, as he not only has strained relations with large segments of Iraq's Kurdish and Sunni communities, but also seems to have a serious popularity deficit among Shiites as well. He has been a constant subject of popular anti-corruption protests, as his government was viewed as corrupt and incompetent by many Iraqis. It also remains to be seen whether the meetings between Maliki and PUK-Gorran leaders will lead to joint efforts in the Iraqi parliament in the coming months.
The PUK's Pira said his party and Gorran are committed to preserving Kurdish unity in the face of challenges emanating from Baghdad. When Abadi tried to remove Kurdish ministers from the government in March, the Kurdish parties, despite their profound internal disputes, put up a unified act in opposing the move.