There’s a rumor going around that Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is feeling his oats, flexing his muscle, and displaying a newfound confidence that has allowed him to challenge the American occupation of Iraq. As a result, or so the story goes, Maliki has suspended talks with the United States on a long-term security agreement, and he has spoken out in favor of a timetable for withdrawing US forces.
But that’s mostly wrong. From the start of his reign as prime minister in 2006, Maliki has been a weak and ineffectual leader. His political base is exceedingly narrow, and his Dawa Party is virtually nonexistent as a political force in Iraq today. (Dawa — which means “The Call,” as in Islamic proselytizing, has always been a thin part of the ruling alliance, and it recently splintered, when former Prime Minister Jaafari and his faction withdrew from it.) Maliki’s power rests on a shaky coalition of other Iraqi parties, including the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), a militia-based party closely tied to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
Maliki has tried to strengthen his hand by bringing the religious Sunni bloc back into the ruling coalition. But the party that represents the religious Sunnis, whose core is the Iraqi Islamic Party, won’t help Maliki. The IIP, a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood secret society, was elected in 2005-2006 to its provincial posts and its parliamentary slots only because it was the sole Sunni party that would take part in an election that was widely boycotted by Sunni Arabs. (Only about two percent of Sunni Arabs voted.) So the idea that IIP has any political power is absurd. Most Sunni Iraqs are secular or moderately religious, and they reject the fundamentalist views of the IIP. The IIP is facing a determined (and armed) force arrayed against it amongst the Sunni “Awakening” or sahwa, also known as the “Sons of Iraq.” Either through political means (i.e., the upcoming provincial elections) or by armed force, the Sons of Iraq movement will likely obliterate the IIP fairly soon.
Maliki is trying to balance between his support from the United States, which is arming and training the Iraqi security forces (army and police), and his support from Iran, which has vast political, economic, and covert military influence inside Iraq. Both Maliki and ISCI want to maintain US support for the army and police, which have grown astronomically, from 337,000 in 2007 to 556,000 in 2008. So they can’t afford to alienate Washington. At the same time Maliki and ISCI are responding to strong pressure from Iran, which wants the Americans out of Iraq, and from Iraqi nationalists, who feel the same way. (Of course, the nationalists also want Iran to get out of Iraq.) That’s not a formula for political strength.