Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki appeared to lock up a second term in office Wednesday after a lengthy closed-door meeting of Iraq’s political elite in which foes buckled to his demands for ending a dangerous eight-month impasse and forming a new government.
It was stunning victory for the Shiite Islamist, who was plucked from obscurity four years ago to become prime minister during the worst of Iraq’s sectarian violence, and a success for Iran. But it was a strategic defeat for Washington, which had pressed for a prominent role for Maliki’s rival, and appeared to be caught flatfooted by the rapid developments.
Maliki has mastered Iraq’s levers of power in Iraq to become a figure admired and feared by supporters and opponents alike. Wednesday’s marathon meeting, which started around 4 p.m. and lasted almost seven hours, fitted the Maliki mold.
Holding fast during months of uncertainty, he wore down the opposition, who initially had refused to agree to his terms for a parliament session Thursday that would pick a speaker and a three-man presidency board, who would then nominate Maliki for a new term and authorize him to assemble his Cabinet.
Iraq has been without a new government since March elections in which Maliki’s slate of candidates came in second to that of secular Shiite candidate Iyad Allawi. As politicians maneuvered for position and U.S. combat troops withdrew, the country saw violence increase and Iraqis become increasingly fearful of a return to widespread sectarian strife.
The United States had lobbied hard for Iraqiya to have a central role in the next government, and in recent days had pushed hard for Allawi to be given the post of president, according to Iraqiya and Kurdish officials.
Instead, the alliance of Maliki and the incumbent president, Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, triumphed. It creates a scenario where a Shiite religious party and a Kurdish leader hold the main posts in Baghdad, and Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority is once more relegated to a secondary role, not unlike that under the polarized government Maliki took control of four years ago.
“If things actually happen as just announced, it would indeed appear to be a victory for Maliki and for Iran, which pushed this scenario forward,” said Iraq expert Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group think tank. “On the face of it, it looks like the new government could become a retread of the government of the past four years, with its uneven representation and multiple deficits.”
Until the last moment, Allawi had vowed that his Iraqiya list would never participate in a government that did not guarantee an equal distribution of power and limit the prime minister’s powers. But one member said the group became concerned about splits within its own ranks.
Allawi stunned even some of his own supporters shortly after he left Wednesday’s meeting in frustration by reversing himself and accept the incumbent’s terms.
Iraqiya agreed to accept the post of parliament speaker and the chair of a new government body, called the National Council for Strategic Policy, which has yet to be given any defined powers. Some observers wondered if Iraqiya might still change its mind. The alliance of Allawi, Sunnis and secular politicians is fractious, and many of its prominent figures have their own personal ambitions.
But officials from Iraqiya sounded shocked and defeated after waging an eight-month battle against Maliki over who had the right to form the next government.
“There was no choice,” one Iraqiya official said, at the end of the long night. Iraqiya was expected to name its candidate for parliament speaker before the Thursday legislative session.
Maliki’s supporters described deals brokered prior to Wednesday night, particularly the prime minister’s alliance with anti-U.S. Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr, as a victory for Tehran, but emphasized that Maliki did not take orders from anyone.
“The Americans lost that battle to the Iranians,” said Izzat Shahbandar, a Maliki supporter and advisor. “But the Iranians didn’t win with Maliki.”
In Washington, a State Department official declined to comment on the developments, and noted that “there are some procedural steps that need to be completed before a new government is formed.”
“We’ve encouraged the Iraqis to have an inclusive government; we’ll wait and see if this will be one,” said the official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Supporters hail Maliki for rescuing his country from a civil war, while critics call him the lucky beneficiary of two developments that reduced violence: an increase in U.S. troops and a revolt against Al Qaeda in Iraq by Sunni Arabs.
Regardless, Maliki has proven himself a tenacious survivor – one with admirers who say he is the only man who can save Iraq, and critics who view him as a divisive figure. They accuse him of being motivated by a wish for his Islamic Dawa Party to stay in power no matter what the cost, and warn another four years under him could see the creation of a one-party state.
Maliki’s former national security advisor, former Dawa member Mowaffak Rubaie, voiced apprehension about the country’s direction in the days before the announcement.
“I personally am worried that our whole political program is going down the drain,” he said. “What did we come for? I campaigned for three things throughout my life: democracy, federalism-community rights and human rights,” Rubaie said. “The Shia are enjoying our community rights but we are persecuting the other community. We are getting closer and closer to a one-party state.”
Maliki’s supporters had predicted his victory in the countdown to Wednesday’s meeting. Sami Askari, a lawmaker and advisor to Maliki, had predicted Iraqiya would come around. “It’s too late,” he said. “They will join the government.”
Last week, before three days of meetings hosted by another Kurdish leader, Massoud Barzani, one senior Western diplomat had said that Iraqi politicians appeared to be close to a deal after months of impasse.
Barzani has had a contentious relationship with Maliki and had wanted guarantees that there would be limits on the prime minister’s power. But the diplomat observed that principles appeared to have gone by the wayside as politicians focused on their personal ambitions.
“It’s become a souk now,” said the diplomat. “What are you selling? What is the price?”