by ISW Iraq Team, Jennifer Cafarella, Jessica Lewis, and Isabel Nassief
Key Takeaway: Iraq’s incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki maneuvered elite military units in Baghdad overnight on August 10, cutting off entrances to the protected Green Zone, in an effort to secure power by use of force. This is currently serving as a demonstration of force. The National Alliance has nominated an alternate Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, who is from Maliki’s Dawa Party and is serving as the Deputy Speaker of Iraq’s parliament. Iraq’s President Fuad Masum has asked him to form a government. Maliki is not likely to give up power quietly. Today will be decisive for the formation or demise of Iraq’s government.
Despite increasing local and international pressure for his removal from office, Nouri al-Maliki has firmly pursued a third term as Iraqi Prime Minister relying heavily on the high number of seats his State of Law Alliance (SLA) secured in the national elections of April 2014. Nonetheless, urged by the Shia religious establishment in Najaf, major Iraqi Shia political actors in the pan-Shia National Alliance (NA), of which the SLA is a component, continued their efforts to secure an alternate nominee for the premiership in the hope of ushering in a political transition. The NA conducted intense negotiations over the nomination but failed to reach a consensus, since Maliki’s SLA insisted on nominating him for the position.
Iraq’s constitution requires the President of Iraq within fifteen days of his appointment to ask the “largest bloc” in Parliament, from which the premier will be drawn, to form a government. President Fuad Masum took office on July 24, 2014, setting the deadline for this appointment as August 7. A three-day extension to the initial 15-day deadline expired on August 10 withoutthe election of a Prime Minister by the Iraqi Council of Representatives (CoR). Instead, the speaker of the CoR announced a second extension, identifying a new August 19 deadline in order to “allow additional time” for further negotiations. Reports also surfacedthat the Iraqi President requested that the National Alliance (NA) meet during a one-day extension to select a Prime Minister. A meeting was reportedly held between the NA representatives without the participation of Maliki’s Dawa Party. The presence of other SLA members in this meeting indicates that opposition to Maliki is not limited to the NA. Further signs of rifts within the SLA appeared when the official SLA Twitter account was broadcasted anti-Maliki tweets and warned against the use of force to secure political gains. One Tweetread “The decision of the SLA came after the command of Dawa Party withdrew Maliki’s nomination after receiving a letter from the Marjeya.”
In response, Prime Minister Maliki gave a speech on August 10 in which he declaredhis intent to file a complaint at the Federal Court and accused the Presidency of violating the constitution on two counts: (1) for extending the period “of tasking the candidate of the largest bloc” with forming the government to August 10, 2014; and (2) for “purposefully violating” the constitution by not doing so on August 10, 2014. In his speech, Maliki stated that Iraq was facing a "dangerous" situation and urged Iraqis to be united against ISIS and “ISIS politicians,” a reference often used by SLA members to describe Maliki’s opposition. Maliki’s speech was preceded by the heavy deployment of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) to securethe entrances to Baghdad and to the Green Zone at 10:30 pm local time, 90 minutes before Maliki’s speech. A number of streets are reportedto have been closed in addition to key bridges as security forces loyal to Maliki effectively instituted a state of emergency within the capital. An anonymous source from within the Green Zone stated that security forces had surrounded the Presidency’s headquarters, in an apparent attempt to coerce the president to declare the SLA the largest block in order to secure Maliki’s election to a third term.
This show of force was preceded by a gathering of Maliki supporters on August 9 who demonstrated in support of a third term in central Baghdad, a move likely orchestrated by Maliki in order to leverage popular support as a means for his nomination rather than consensus within the NA. It was also preceded by a message reportedlysent from Maliki to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in which the former expressed his discontent regarding the latter’s stance and called for him not to intervene in politics.
Reactions to the ISF Deployment
Leaders in the Dawa Party, the SLA, and SLA member Haider al-Abadi, reported earlier to be a likely candidate for the premiership, downplayed the heavy ISF deployment. SLA leaders commented that demonstrators will fill the streets of Baghdad until PM Maliki is allowed to form a government, suggesting that the military mobilization is a show of force rather than a coup. Al-Abadi also stated on his Twitter account that the deadline remained extended until 3:00 pm Monday afternoon. Further reporting indicated that the National Alliance has formally nominatedal-Abadi for the Premiership.
Multiple reports of military and police forces blocking roads leading to Firdos Square in Baghdad confirm the presence and protection of pro-Maliki demonstrations. The Baghdad Operations Command also stated that the mobilization was designed to support “constitutionally guaranteed” demonstrations. A reporter on the ground tweeted that demonstrators were brought into the square on military trucks. The reaction of the National Alliance to these demonstrations and Maliki’s show of force in light of an alternate nomination will be important to watch.
In an early response to the crisis, State Dept. spokeswoman Jen Psaki stated: “We reject any effort to achieve outcomes through coercion or manipulation of the constitutional or judicial process," adding that the U.S. “stands ready to support a new and inclusive government, particularly in the fight against” ISIS. The rejection of this policy by Maliki calls into question how the U.S. will act in support of the ISF in the midst of Iraq’s security crisis. Secretary Kerry stated on August 11 that Maliki’s move to abjure political process has the potential to sever international support to Iraq. The main issue on the table now is not whether Iraq forms a unity government despite this weekend’s reverberations; but rather, how Maliki will use the security forces that are currently responding to his call to arms. At this time, it appears that Maliki is using the mobilization of loyal forces in Baghdad as a show of force and protection for pro-Maliki demonstrators. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether Maliki will attempt to escalate the use of force to seize control of Iraq’s government now that a premier has been named.
What ISW is watching
Although Maliki has control over the ISF and the ISOF, the Sadrsits and ISCI might use their strong presence in the street and launch demonstrations in areas such as Sadr City, Hurriya, Shula, Khadhimiya, Karrada, and Jadiriya. In anticipation of such demonstrations, some ISOF and ISF were deployedto the eastern part of Baghdad. A government crackdown on anti-Maliki demonstrations will almost certainly initiate heavy intra-Shia clashes and create chaos in the capital. Such demonstrations tookplace in March 2014 when hundreds of Sadrist supporters took out to the street and demonstrated against Maliki after he criticized Sadr on TV. At the time, Sadr mitigated the situation by calling on his supporters to stop the demonstrations. Initial signs of potential fractures within the ISF surfaced on that occasion when ISF members participated in the demonstrations, but no violent clashes took place. The response of Sadrist and ISCI supporters within the ISF will be important to watch as the current political contest unfolds.
Another theme would be the organization of a pro-Maliki demonstration in response where Maliki supporters protected by the ISF protest against the President and demand the nomination of Maliki as the Prime Minister. Pro-Maliki protests secured by the ISF occurred in Baghdad on Saturday, August 9 and continued on Sunday, August 10. Baghdad is not the only province where intra-Shia confrontations might take place, cities where major Shia shrines are located like Najaf and Karbala are important to watch as well. It is also important to watch for violence in Samarra where the ISF, Iranians, and many militias are co-located.
These events are taking place at a time where many elite CTS and ISF units are deployed over many fronts to counter an existential threat by ISIS. A reallocation of the ISF in order to back Maliki in Baghdad would have dire consequences on the security posture where these units might be redeployed from.
The whereabouts of the President
The surrounding of the President’s headquarters by the ISF is a worrisome development and it will be important to watch to what extent Maliki will use force to pressure the president to task the SLA with forming the government.
ISF/Peshmerga security cooperation
It is also critical to watch if Maliki will use the recent cooperation and support provide by Baghdad to the KRG as leverage to pressure the Kurds to support him in return for providing weapon supplies and IA Aviation support to counter an ISIS threat near Arbil.
ISIS and other anti-government armed groups
If a chaos engulfs the capitol due to intra-Shia violence, ISIS will likely capitalize on the softened defenses that will likely be a result of the violence in order to conduct spectacular attacks in the capitol where it could not do so recently due to the heavy deployment of ISF and Iraqi Shia militias in and around Baghdad.
The escalation of force in order to affect the outcome of Iraq’s government formation compromises political solutions that are necessary prerequisited for maintaining a unified Iraq and a unified Iraqi security response to ISIS. The use of force to pursue alternate aims severely elevates the vulnerability of Baghdad to attacks by ISIS and other anti-government forces. Maliki is currently pursuing the most dangerous course of action for Iraq in light of the possibility of peaceful succession by a new Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi. Despite the extreme nature of this outcome, it is not likely that Maliki will relinquish power peacefully. Today will be decisive for Iraq’s political recovery, and therefore for the future of Iraqi security solutions to the ISIS threat.