As Iraq gears up for provincial elections, the floor under the ruling Shia alliance is cracking. Anger is mounting among a population that says its demands have not been met, as shown during recent protests against Iraqi Vice- President Nuri al-Maliki in southern Iraq.
Maliki’s unsolicited, self-funded political tour to several southern cities in December drew crowds of enraged protesters demanding the departure of a man they blame for Iraq’s current situation. Dissatisfied masses scolded Maliki — as their placards read — for plundering Iraq’s oil wealth and allowing one-third of the country to slip into the grasp of the Islamic State (ISIS).
“The aim of Maliki’s tour,” Amman-based activist Marjan al-Hilali explained in a telephone interview, “is to nurture the loyalty of certain segments of society through hollow promises and cash.”
Hilali said money was the order of the day in the “new Iraq”. The highest bidder, he said, “is he who solidifies his power over ministries of state”. Maliki’s promises of reform and sweeping changes have come to mean very little. Suspicion and distrust of his motives are grounded in a history of his repressive and sectarian rule.
Iraqi-based activist Uday al-Zaidi said, “Maliki and his State of Law Party have lost the popular vote”, especially among Shias in Iraq. Any legitimacy he had was extracted under electoral fraud and vote rigging. Even this was lost the moment protesters took to the streets during February uprisings in 2010”.
“He cannot defy his fate by walking over the cracks in the floor beneath him,” Zaidi said. “Power is no longer narrowly concentrated around him or his allies.”
Maliki denounced the protests, labelling the participants as outlaws belonging to the Sadrist political movement. Days earlier, Islamic Dawa Party leader Ammar al-Kuzai was attacked by armed groups in Basra. The Sadrists released a statement three days following Maliki’s eviction from Basra’s oil cultural centre denying responsibility and involvement. Wathiq al-Battat, leader of Iraq’s Hezbollah, stereotyped demonstrators as “baltajiyya” — “thugs” — and defended Maliki “as not the only man responsible for the blood Iraq has shed”.
Maliki is widely remembered for crushing Iraq’s “Arab spring” in 2012 after a raid was ordered on the Ministry of Finance headed by Rafi al-Issawi, a Sunni. His guards were arrested under terrorism charges and another Sunni MP, Ahmad al- Alwani, was imprisoned.
Starting in Falluja, thousands of Iraqis rallied to condemn Maliki’s sectarian governance. The popular uprising lasted more than a year but its “leaders were incarcerated, forced into exile, and many of them killed”, Ahmad Mahmoud, an organiser of the 2010 uprisings, now based in London, explained.
“The same approach was used the subsequent years as protests continued,” he said. Those who marched, Mahmoud added, “whether in Falluja, Ramadi or Basra were conceptualised by Maliki and his henchman as seditionists and criminals”, allegations Maliki returned to after the demonstrations against him in southern Iraq.
Zaidi said that, while political groups joined the protests, “Maliki’s projection of what really happened is a mere illusion that Iraqis can no longer be fed”. His reception suggests his popularity is waning.
Though rifts between Maliki and the Sadrist movement are not new, they have intensified in recent months. Both blocs, on paper, are partners in the ruling national alliance criticised by Zaidi “as a house that is divided” along religious lines.
In late December, Muqtada al Sadr met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to discuss the war against ISIS, reform plans and the elevation of moderate voices within the establishment reportedly without mentioning names.
“Lest we forget, the political system in Iraq was essentially founded upon injustices and the existing alliances that form the political process lack popular support,” Zaidi said. “Whether it is Sunni or Shia or Kurdish, these are all political blocs moulded by the hands of US occupiers.”
With only a few months before Iraqi elections, Zaidi maintained that Iraq is witnessing the “rise of a new popular movement… the biggest threat to those in power”.
He said that April’s vote “will give birth to new political parties and trends with old faces”. He added that observers should expect several delays under “invented pretences” of the ruling national Shia alliance to postpone the results.
Growing friction between Maliki’s State of Law Coalition and the Sadrist movement are expected and alliances will likely shift as political blocs try to consolidate power. These agendas, Zaidi said, “will not go undetected by the Iraqi people”.
Nazli Tarzi is an independent journalist, whose writings and films focus on Iraq’s ancient history and contemporary political scene.
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