Who is spreading rumors about a coup in Iraq?

A rumor about an imminent coup spread in Baghdad at the end of September, which the Iraqi government rushed to deny.

al-monitor Iraq's Vice President Nouri al-Maliki (L) and new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi shake hands during the session to approve the new government in Baghdad, Sept. 8, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Hadi Mizban.

Topics covered

social media, nouri al-maliki, military coup, iraqi politics, haider al-abadi, coup, baath

Oct 22, 2015

BAGHDAD — One day after the end of the Eid al-Adha holiday (Sept. 24-27), the Iraqi government issued a decree declaring Sept. 28 as an additional day off. The decision to extend the holiday coincided with a rumor, which circulated in the media and on social networks, of an imminent coup d’etat in Baghdad.

Interestingly, the news of the decree was aired on TV stations after midnight on Sept. 27, and many Iraqis arrived at their jobs not realizing businesses were closed, which further fueled the spread of the rumor of a possible coup.

As a result, on Sept. 28, public concern was prevalent and traffic was lighter than usual in Baghdad. Although the government was quick to discredit the news the same day, fear persisted.

Iraq has a history rife with military and political coup d’etats, starting with the military coup that overthrew the monarchy on July 14, 1958. Iraq has witnessed three military coups and a number of coup attempts, such as the one in 1979 when President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr announced his resignation under pressure of Saddam Hussein and his supporters, who took over the country's rule and the Baath Party leadership.

The recent rumor of a military coup raised the concern of the government and parliament. Ali Jasim al-Matyouti, a member of the Iraqi parliament's National Security and Defense Committee, told Al-Monitor that the committee “has followed up on the rumor and found out that it is unfounded at the various levels of the Iraqi state.”

Matyouti said, “The Security and Defense Committee’s ongoing investigation [into the rumor] did not reveal the party behind such news.” He ruled out the possibility of a coup against the Iraqi government, and argued that “Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is highly welcomed in the government and parliament.”

Rumors are considered a social incident, the direct sources of which are not easy to identify. Iraq's current political climate is rich in political conflicts to the point that it gives free reign to popular imagination to the advantage of some politicians based on their positions in the conflict.

Political analysts and journalists in Iraq have found that rumors of a coup are part of a war on the undeclared political leadership dispute between former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Abadi.

According to Ammar al-Sawad, author and journalist for Al-Hurra TV, other factors are at play that resulted in the rumor of a forthcoming coup. He told Al-Monitor, “The idea of a coup is embedded in the Iraqi mentality, and this rumor spontaneously emerged and took its course.”

He said, “There are forces that rely on intimidating people through [rumors] about a coup in order for them to politically survive, and they are the ones who ignite the rumors.” 

In regard to the talk that “close associates of Abadi are behind the latest rumor,” Sawad said that "it is designed to create an image of Abadi, who has lost his influence on the street following the poor reforms he announced.”

He added, “There are rumors ignited by Baathist circles and they are designed to cause confusion within Iraqi society. Maliki is [probably] the one spreading such rumors, to raise fear [among Iraqis] about the return of the Baathists to power. He presents himself as an alternative to the consensus state in the political process that led to the sectarian quota system in the country’s administration.”

Sawad, who writes a weekly column for Elaph, believes that “the talk on the coup — whatever its motives are — is [pure] imagination.”

He said, “The current Iraqi changes are not subject to independent internal policies. Rather, they constantly need or are subject to external support. At present there is no possibility for independent action to take place. A military coup needs a consensus among influential countries in Iraq, or else it will cause a public conflict and lead to bloodshed.”

Sawad added, “The current military establishment cannot make such a move. First, because it is divided and second because there is a balance of power between the military establishment and the armed groups and militias.”

For his part, author and journalist Sarmad al-Tai divided those standing behind the rumor of a coup in two groups. He told Al-Monitor, “First there is the group that believes that external forces are entirely able to change the balance of power politically and militarily, since these [powers] brought a Shiite elite to power after Saddam was ousted. They can therefore make a swift move to bring [in power] a Sunni or a Shiite who favors Sunnis and shift the balance.”

Tai said, “This belief stems from a deep despair and lack of hope to make rational changes in the political action.”

As for the second group, he said that they are “the supporters of Maliki. They cannot believe that they are not in charge, although he [Maliki] has lost all of his government positions and failed to restore his political image.”

Tai added, “Maliki’s supporters believe they have given Washington and Tehran all required concessions, and both parties were supposed to keep him in office. Based on that, they dream of a coup that brings them back to power. They are also based on a deep despair of a possible political action.”

Nevertheless, Tai, who writes a daily article for the Al-Mada newspaper, diminished the ambitions of both groups. He said, “They go beyond the fact there is no state — in its modern definition — in the first place for the army to carry out a coup against it.”

He added, “There are power centers in Iraq. If the Karkh [the western half of Baghdad] falls into the hands of a particular group, a counter-state will be declared and will claim legitimacy in the Rusafa part of Baghdad with a Shiite majority. If Basra — which is close to Iran — falls, Najaf will survive as it is the stronghold of Shiites. If the Islamic State [maintains its control of] Mosul, the town of Haditha in Anbar will continue to resist and to commit to the state's legitimacy.”

Tai referred to the complex political system in Iraq, as Baghdad and the Iraqi provinces are divided between parties and sects. He implicitly pointed to the size of the division among political parties that prevents them from reaching a consensus in leading Iraq’s affairs and protecting the country from the political conflicts it is currently witnessing

The Iraqi situation today is complex, which has engendered rumors that are designed to raise despair or to serve as a smoke screen in order to pass policies or generate panic.

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