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Maliki and Sadr: An Alliance of Convenience

Author: Lionel Beehner
October 24, 2006
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has come under fire from U.S. officials for his refusal, or at least inability, to disband the militia of Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr’s militia, known as the Mahdi Army, is accused of carrying out a number of attacks against Sunni insurgents, coalition forces, and rival militias like the Badr Brigade. Maliki relies on Sadr, who controls a large bloc of parliamentary seats, for political support and can ill afford to alienate his religious and conservative base. Experts say the alliance between the two poses a serious threat to American efforts to hand over security duties to the four-month-old government and begin scaling back U.S. forces. 

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What is Malikiís relationship to Muqtada al-Sadr?

Maliki, a top member of the conservative Dawa Party, enjoys the political support of Sadr, a popular anti-U.S. Shiite cleric. “Behind Dawa is really Sadr,” says CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Vali R. Nasr. “His party was a tiebreaker party. Sadr himself did not have another prime minister [as a candidate earlier this year] that either the United States or SCIRI (Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq) would have accepted.” SCIRI is a top Shiite party whose leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, has frequently clashed with Sadr. “The problem is that ultimately [Maliki] is completely dependent on Muqtada al-Sadr and Hakim and a variety of other groups out there who, quite frankly, have no interest in doing the right thing,” says Kenneth M. Pollack, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution, in an interview with CFR.org. As he grows increasingly isolated from his American benefactors, says Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service, Maliki is reaching out more to clerics like Sadr and the Supreme Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to seek support in curbing the violence.

Does Maliki share Sadrís goals in Iraq?

Their views overlap more than they contradict one another, experts say, but their alliance is primarily one of political convenience. “Sadr has some vested interest in seeing Maliki succeed because the alternative could be more problematic,” Nasr says. Both harbor suspicions of SCIRI, whose Badr Brigade militia has repeatedly clashed with Sadr’s forces in southern Iraq and is closely alligned with Iran. Further, neither Sadr nor Maliki supports full-blown civil war in Iraq, nor does either want the country to split up into semiautonomous zones. The problem, says Pollack, is that Sadr, unlike Maliki, is “not going to make any concessions either to the Sunnis or to the other Shiite militias. And that is pushing both the Sunnis and the other Shiite militias to dig in their heels.” Also, Sadr has called for the immediate pullout of U.S. forces, which Maliki does not endorse.

Why has the prime minister proven unable to rid Iraq of militias?

Maliki relies too heavily on Sadr’s bloc, which controls thirty seats in parliament, for domestic political support. Further, large segments of Iraq’s majority Shiite population actually do not favor disbanding these militias, experts say. “Even if Maliki wanted to go against the militias, he has public opinion to worry about,” says Abbas Kadhim, assistant professor of Islamic studies at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. Many Iraqis view these Shiite groups much like some Lebanese view Hezbollah: as protectors who fill in a security vacuum and provide basic services. “It’s a myth to say the militias are bad for Iraq,” Kadhim says. “They are the only ones providing anything meaningful for Iraqis. The problem [for Iraqis] is choosing between anarchy and a militia that protects you for a price.”

What are some commonly heard complaints of Maliki from Washington?

Some U.S. policymakers say the Iraqi prime minister has proven unwilling to disarm and dismantle Shiite militias like Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Despite piecemeal efforts to root out corruption in Iraq’s interior and defense ministries, including recently firing two high-ranking officials, Maliki has not moved against Shiite militia members within the ranks of the Iraqi police and army. Some officials privately say his temperament is not suited to strong decision making, while others say he is a victim of a power-sharing arrangement that weakens his ability to govern effectively. “It’s not like he can just issue an executive order and the problem will go away,” says Kadhim. Others say Maliki is bound to clash with U.S. officials given that recent security operations and door-to-door searches in Baghdad and elsewhere have focused heavily on Shiite areas.

What is behind the recent U.S. criticism of Maliki?

Some experts say it is tied to the United States’ domestic political calendar and frustration among White House and Pentagon officials who want to secure Baghdad. Others say it may reflect upcoming plans by the White House to shift its strategy in Iraq. “They might make Maliki the scapegoat,” Katzman says. “There may be a move to change course in Iraq, and it’s possible the administration might be laying the groundwork to blame Prime Minister Maliki for failing to compromise and taking the necessary steps.” Another possibility, Katzman adds, is the United States may privately be leaning toward a brokered solution that encompasses the wholesale resignation of Maliki’s cabinet and the installation of a different cabinet, “something resembling the Iraqi Governing Council [the 2003-2004 provisional government].”

Is Malikiís premiership in jeopardy?

For the foreseeable future, no, experts say. There is virtually no chance of a military coup because “Iraq lacks a [fully functional] military,” Nasr points out. And he is unlikely to be deposed by the United States because there are few acceptable alternatives. “If you change Maliki for another Dawa leader, nothing will change,” Nasr adds. “If you go outside [of Dawa], this opens up a whole can of worms.” Experts say Maliki’s future will depend largely on two things: whether the U.S. significantly overhauls its strategy in Iraq in the coming months and whether the Iraqi government moves forward with federalism plans to decentralize rule away from Baghdad and give more power to the provinces.

Does Maliki have any real power to restore order to Iraq?

Most experts say Maliki lacks sufficient power to properly rein in Iraq’s militias and reach a power-sharing agreement. “He doesn’t even have control over his own branch or cabinet, let alone the activities of al-Qaeda, the Kurdish militias, and Sunnis,” Kadhim says. Some say it is not Maliki’s personality but his post that is to blame. “Maliki is not a weak person per se but he is in charge of a very weak institution, the premiership, which does not really have any teeth,” Kadhim says.  Adds Nasr: “He faces the dilemma of a prime minister who relies on powerful factions and is hamstrung by a constitution that requires an overwhelming majority [of parliament] to vote and be able to do anything.” Others say he lacks the resources, financial as well as material, to govern well. They point to the difficult task of expecting police to respond to insurgent attacks despite receiving subsistence-level salaries and inadequate equipment. 

What can Maliki do to tame the sectarian violence?

Very little, experts say, without outside help from the United States. He has sought to establish a national reconciliation conference next month but some experts question whether it will have any impact on sectarian tensions. He has also proposed amnesty to insurgents and ex-Baathists, but only those insurgents without American blood on their hands. “At the end of the day, you have to be an angel to get a pardon,” Kadhim says. “Who are they reserving a pardon for, Sistani?” Experts agree the low-level civil war in Iraq will be won politically, not militarily, but disagree on what is the best political roadmap for Iraq’s future. 

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