By: ISW Iraq Team, Jessica D. Lewis, and Kimberly Kagan
Maliki lost the support of Iran and Iranian-backed Shi’a militia groups. This drastically erodes his opportunity to leverage the use of force to secure political gains. It may also generate intra-Shi’a violence where forces loyal to Maliki, especially in Baghdad, come into contact with forces that respond to Iraqi state or Iranian direction. The reaction of the Baghdad security forces that are loyal to Maliki will determine if there is a peaceful transition of power and whether the defense of Baghdad against ISIS will prevail during government transition.
The Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi’a militia, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) decided to abandon support for Maliki. AAH released an official statement to express its support for the decision made by the National Alliance to appoint Haider al-Abadi for the Premiership over Nouri al-Maliki. There are also reports that Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the Badr organization, will give a statement in support of Abadi today. A CoR member from the Badr bloc, Razaq Mhibis also stated his support for Abadi. Statements by these two organizations strongly indicate the Iranian attitude toward Maliki and Iraq’s government formation. AAH and the Badr organization are not likely to make such statements without top cover from Qassem Suleimani and the Iranian regime against Maliki. This Iranian stance was also expressed through official channels when the Iranian foreign minister emphasized in a phone call with his Italian counterpart the need to form an inclusive Iraqi government after Abadi was tasked with the premiership. Also, the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, which reports to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ali Shamkhani stated that Iran supports the ongoing “legal” process in selecting the new PM. This is a strong indication that Iran desires to preserve the Iraqi state rather than Maliki's rule, now that the Shi'a political parties have united on a premier candidate.
Maliki cannot remain in the premiership in defiance of every other Shi’a party, militia, and Iran. He therefore cannot rely on the ISF where they are fully integrated with militias in Samarra, Diyala Garma, and elsewhere. Iranian-directed militia activities will likely neutralize other elements of the ISF that are loyal to Maliki. Maliki mobilized these forces on August 10 in Baghdad, raising concerns about a possible coup. Reports on August 12 indicated that the ISF units that were deployed by Maliki around the Green Zone redeployed inside, reducing their mobilization posture. Some ISF commander already expressed to Abadi their support for the “peaceful” transition of power and the political process and that their allegiance is “for the county rather than individuals” in a reference to Maliki. On August 12, pro-Maliki volunteers clashed with anti-Maliki volunteers in the area of Abasiay, north of Samarra, a potential realization of this intra-Shi’a conflict spreading outside of Baghdad. However, Maliki can still put up a fight in Baghdad with his most loyal inner circle and trusted praetorian guard. This raises the question about how Maliki will respond to the overt withdrawal of Iranian support.
Qassem Suleimani may first recommend a position for Maliki in the new government, and then exercise an exit strategy for Maliki in the midst of this contest that may reduce the potential for a Maliki-directed mobilization in Baghdad. These actions do not remove the threat of violent clashes among Shi’a groups and ISF elements in Baghdad that have taken opposing sides. Haider al-Abadi will face a challenge to gain control over Maliki’s Baghdad security forces. ISIS will likely take advantage of this contest, as indicated by such attacks in Baghdad as the VBIED and several other explosions reported in Baghdad on August 11.