What The Hell Is Maliki Doing?

by Dish Staff

Baghdad’s political crisis appears to have gone off a cliff, with the embattled prime minister in the driver’s seat. Mary Casey sums up the news since yesterday:

Maliki has accused the country’s new president, Fouad Massoum, of staging a “coup against the constitution and the political process” for refusing to designate him prime minister. On Monday, Massoum asked Deputy Speaker Haider al-Abadi to form a government. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States supports Massoum and warned Maliki not to interfere with the constitutional process and the formation of a new government. However, an Iraqi court ruled that Maliki’s State of Law coalition is the largest bloc in parliament and should be given the first opportunity to form a new government. Meanwhile, the United States has begun to directly provide arms to the Kurdish pesh merga forces who are battling Islamic State fighters in northern Iraq. The U.S. administration had previously sold weapons only to the Iraqi government in Baghdad. U.S. airstrikes over the weekend have helped the pesh merga to retake the towns of Gwer and Mahmour.

Maliki has not only threatened to sue Massoum for neglecting his constitutional duties, but has also deployed security forces loyal to him throughout Baghdad, ostensibly to forestall a coup against him but more likely, some fear, to be ready to carry one out on his behalf (NYT):

As he spoke in the middle of the night, extra security forces, including special forces units loyal to Mr. Maliki, as well as tanks, locked down the Green Zone and took up positions around the city, heightening the sense of drama. There were no immediate signs Monday afternoon that Mr. Maliki had taken further steps to use military force to guarantee his survival. And Mr. Maliki was scheduled to make a public statement on television, along with other members of his Dawa Party who remain loyal to him. Mr. Maliki’s television appearance, in which he appeared to be trying to intimidate Mr. Massoum by mentioning the army in the context of protecting the constitution, alarmed American officials, and left Baghdad wondering if a coup was underway.

To Zack Beauchamp, this kind of strongman behavior perfectly illustrates the point Obama made in his Saturday press conference that the only permanent solution to the crisis is an Iraqi political solution. After all, Maliki’s heavy-handed dealings with Iraq’s Sunni minority played a major part in enabling the rise of ISIS:

“The Sunnis have lots of different grievances,” Kirk Sowell, a political risk analyst and expert on Iraqi politics, says. Some of these are the current government’s fault. Prime minister Maliki has treated the Sunnis badly, including forcibly breaking up a peaceful protest movement in 2013. His seemingly authoritarian turn on Sunday shows just how far Maliki remains from moving towards a more inclusive style of governance. …

While these grievances of course don’t transform Iraqi Sunnis into ISIS-style theocrats, it does make Sunni communities more open to at least seeing if ISIS will be better for them than Baghdad. And so long as ISIS has at least passive support from the Sunni population, it will be almost impossible for the Iraqi government to dislodge them from the mostly Sunni territory they hold.

This behavior has even invited comparisons to Bashar al-Assad:

“The Assad approach” is how Maliki’s detractors, both rival politicians in Baghdad and civilians caught up in the government’s fight against Sunni militants, describe the Iraqi leader’s military strategy, comparing the men’s use of military force to address internal social and political problems. In Syria, Assad’s use of military force in response to popular protests, some argue, was partially to blame for how the originally peaceful protests morphed into an armed uprising that eventually created a security vacuum in which al Qaeda-inspired militants flourished. Some Iraqis say the same is true of Maliki’s decision to clear the Ramadi protest [in January]. Some Syrians say so, too. “Sometimes I laugh when I see this Iraqi dictator following Assad’s footsteps,” said Omar Abu Leila, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army’s Eastern Front.

Ed Morrissey throws up his hands:

Kerry’s bluster aside, the US has no real influence in Baghdad any longer, which the White House made clear with its earlier unmet demands for political reform as a prerequisite for intervention. Maliki made it official last night. The only option left to the US is to arm the Kurds to get an effective fight against ISIS, and apparently leave Baghdad to Iran. If Masum can wrest power away from Maliki and get a Shi’a PM who can work with Kurds and Sunnis, that would be terrific — but he might have to fight through Maliki’s elite forces and Moqtada al-Sadr’s irregulars to have a chance now, and the US endorsement will hardly be a boon to that cause.

And Josh Marshall takes this moment to revisit the question of whether the unitary Iraqi state is worth trying to preserve:

Many of you will rightly say, this is hardly our decision. And I agree with that. But our policy inevitably looks toward and tries to shape what we see as the preferred outcome. The US and Europe tried to keep Yugoslavia together until it obviously couldn’t be kept and then we gave up trying. At the moment we’ve kept our closest friends, the Iraqi Kurds, on a tight leash and actually have a tanker of their oil held off the coast of Texas, all to help along the move toward unity in Baghdad, which Maliki seems set on preventing.

We’re told that Maliki missed the opportunity he was given with the Sunni Awakening in 2007-08 and went back to a Shia sectarian approach to governance, in essence triggering another uprising on the order of the one from the last decade, just now in a different guise and turbocharged by the immolation of Syria. This is no defense of Maliki. But what if he’s just the symptom – the symptom of a state that can’t be held together without the tyrannical grip we liberated it from more than a decade ago?