Maliki's Sectarian Populism Working Among Iraqi Shiites

As various opposition groups strategize against Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the latter seems more skilled than ever at mobilizing the Shiite sect on a popular level.

al-monitor Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki speaks during the opening ceremony of the Defense University for Military Studies inside Baghdad's heavily-fortified Green Zone, June 17, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani.

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violence, us, shiite, sectarianism, sectarian, nouri al-maliki, muqtada al-sadr, islamic supreme council of iraq, iraqi politics, iraq

May 20, 2013

After reaching a consensus under Iran influence, Iraqi Shiite leaders chose Nouri al-Maliki, leader of the Islamic Dawa Party and head of the Rule of Law Coalition, as prime minister in late 2010. Today, however, they do not appear to be in harmony with whom they have come to describe — publicly, such as cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, or privately in secret gatherings, such as leader of the Islamic Supreme Council Ammar al-Hakim — as “unilateral rulers,” accusing them of “state militarization” and escalation at times against the Kurds, and against the Sunnis at others.

After talking with prominent figures in the Shiite National Alliance [which is independent from] the Maliki coalition, Al-Hayat has observed the emergence of a growing trend critical of the policy followed by the Iraqi prime minister, represented by the Muqtada al-Sadr current, particularly since the latter has taken significant steps [to move] away from coordinating with Iran, which had made him the strongest Shiite current in support of Maliki becoming prime minister in 2010 after the Rule of Law coalition.

Today, the Sadrist current is at the forefront of Shiite forces that have worked hard for the legislation of a parliamentary law that limits the mandate of the three presidential authorities to only two terms. This is strongly rejected by the Maliki coalition since if it is not vetoed by the federal court accused of supporting Maliki, it would prevent the Dawa Party leader from heading the government for a third term.

In conjunction with this public trend by the Sadrist movement strongly critical of Maliki, there is another apparently more discreet and symbolic trend, which is that adopted by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) led by Hakim, which scored highly in the latest provincial elections. However, although the ISCI appears to be critical of Maliki, it has not [made this fully apparent] due to several considerations. The council is in the process of regaining its supporters, which it has lost due to divisions, namely those resulting from the secession of the “Badr Organization” led by Hadi al-Ameri, current minister of transport and a powerful ally of Iran, and his choice to forge a political and governmental alliance with Maliki. Divisions also arose from the failure of previous ISCI leaders in managing some ministries, and later local governments in the provinces of Najaf, Hilla and Diwaniyah.

ISCI leaders believe that the party today “cannot face Maliki, even though the latter seems to be pushing the country towards a tough new and most likely sectarian confrontation.” According to the council, “Maliki has what no one else had. He enjoys the support of the ‘Great Satan’ — in reference to the United States, as Iran calls it — and that of the ‘axis of evil’ — in reference to Iran, as it was designated by the administration of former US President George W. Bush.”

The common ground between the trend that publicly rejects Maliki’s approach, as represented by the Sadrist movement, and the trend that is “skeptical” of the prime minister’s measures represented by the ISCI is found where they both realize that any confrontation with the leader of the Dawa Party will affect their popularity in the hard-line Shiite circles. Within these circles, Maliki has become the “modern Mukhtar” who must be supported and backed — in reference to Mukhtar al-Thaqafi, who avenged the killers of Imam Hussein bin Ali bin Abi Talib in Karbala.

Jawad al-Shuhayli, a leader in the Sadrist movement and a deputy in the Al-Ahrar Bloc represented in parliament, said in an interview with Al-Hayat that “the anti-Malki position is costing us dearly on the popular level, but this will not deter us from confronting the apparent emergence of a new dictatorship represented by the current prime minister.”

Shuhayli’s expression “costing us dearly on the popular level” reflects  the resentment felt by wide Shiite circles toward the Sadrist position on Maliki. And since it is resentment of a sectarian nature, the Sadrists are being accused of “aligning with the Sunnis and Baathists” just because the leader of the Sadrist movement expressed sympathy with the popular protests in Sunni areas.

Mahdi, a supporter of Hakim

Adel Abdul Mahdi, the resigned vice president and leader of the ISCI, does not seem to agree with the tone of his party leader Hakim. He has shifted from the subtle tone of criticism to the government and its head, especially with regard to the approach of Baghdad toward the western governorates and the protests held there. In an article that reveals deep disagreement among Shiite leaders, particularly regarding the deferred confrontation with the Sunnis, Abdul Mahdi says that “we have all become hostages who are expected to speak wisely amid a general absence of rationality.”

The Sunnis are hostages. They cannot support the policies of authorities that weaken them in their strongholds and threaten them in other regions. The Shiites are hostages too. In face of the daily killing — and a magnitude of threats — they cannot [criticize] the policies of a failed government regarding security, policies and services.”

It is true that the ISCI leader directed clear criticism at the Maliki government regarding “security, policies and services,” but he does not hesitate to say proudly: “We (the Supreme Council) rejected withdrawing confidence from Maliki.” It appears like an unsolvable puzzle: “A failed government regarding its security, policies and services,” but withdrawing confidence from it is rejected. Thus, many observers see no intrinsic value in the criticism made by the ISCI against Maliki, and consider it to be  mere “smoke and mirrors.” Abdul Mahdi said that “without the moderate Sunni partners, the Shiites cannot enjoy security. And without the fair Shiite partners, the Sunnis would not feel [part of] the government.”

In the midst of hard-line Shiite circles — which no longer see their Sunni “fellow citizens” as anything except “terrorists”, even if they prove the contrary — there is no real value to Abdul Mahdi’s words about the “Shiites needing Sunnis.” There is growing Shiite “populism” represented by Maliki, who seems to have bowed again to the demands of Kurds in order to devote himself entirely to confronting the protesters in Sunni governorates, who are “terrorists, Baathists and sectarian,” as Maliki has described the protests since their outset.

Shiite populism is the product of systematic sectarian propaganda spearheaded by channels that obey the orders of Maliki's office, or speak on behalf of his party or militias that mobilize tens of thousands in celebrations that pave the way for sectarian war, as is the case with the “League of the Righteous,” which is intellectually, militarily, and financially funded by Iran, and is strongly allied with the prime minister

Shiite populism appears to be a natural result consistent with the extent of horror and pain left by almost daily suicide attacks in areas lying in the center and south of the country, which the “Islamic State of Iraq” claims responsibility for, thus limiting the image of Sunnis to the al-Qaeda organization and terrorism.

According to journalist Fadel al-Nashmi, if the wave of criticism against Maliki and his party increases among Shiite intellectual elites, “the shame committed by Saddam and the Baath Party in the name of Sunnis over 30 years is equivalent to the shame committed by Maliki and the Dawa Party for 10 years in the name of Shiites.” Journalist Sarmad al-Tai almost daily slams Maliki, who he describes as the “Sultan.” Researcher Nabras al-Kazmi describes the current Shiite populist mobilization as “Shiite chauvinism.”

However, no Shiite political force is capable of leading the conflict with the approach of Maliki. Thus, their criticism remains confined to secret gatherings, since they are afraid to confront Iran, which appears to be the “maestro” who leads the “choir” of Shiite parties and leaders. The Shiite political forces also seem unable to cope with a wide US support for the “Sultan,” to the point of exercising heavy pressure on the strong ally in Erbil to return to Baghdad and end the boycott. This has actually happened, thus the grounds seem ready to liquidate the popular protests in Sunni areas, amid a rise in “Shiite chauvinism” to record levels.

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