Maliki's Authoritarian Regime

by Marisa Sullivan

Executive Summary

  • Today, political and military power in Iraq is highly centralized in Prime Minister Maliki’s personal office. The national unity government that was formed in the wake of the 2010 parliamentary elections has given way to a de-facto majoritarian government in which Maliki has a monopoly on the institutions of the state. This will have important implications for the future of Iraq and the trajectory and durability of its democratic transition.
  • Maliki is the dominant force over Iraq’s conventional military forces, special operations units, intelligence apparatus, and civilian ministries. Maliki began his security consolidation not long after taking office in mid-2006. 
  • Maliki’s security consolidation enables the prime minister to prevent any coup attempts, to aggressively target Sunni terrorist groups, and to check political rivals through the implicit or explicit threat of force. 
  • Since 2007, Maliki has used the creation of extra-constitutional security bodies to bypass the defense and interior ministries and create an informal chain of command that runs directly from his office to the commanders in the field, allowing him to exert direct influence over the both the targeting of individuals and the conduct of operations. Chief among these are the Office of the Commander in Chief (OCINC) and provincial-level operations commands. 
  • OCINC reports directly to the prime minister and is staffed by Maliki loyalists. The extra-constitutional body has no legal framework to govern its existence and therefore no accountability or oversight, yet it has significant powers and resources. Maliki has also attached Iraq’s most elite units to his military office, and has used them for political purposes. 
  • Maliki relies on the operations commands to coordinate government responses to security challenges. He maintains direct control over these headquarters through OCINC and through the appointment of trusted commanders.
  • The lack of oversight on military appointments has allowed Maliki to choose his preferred officers (nearly all Shi‘a) to head the most significant command positions in Iraq—those of the Iraqi Army Divisions and Operations Commands. Maliki has appointed these senior military officers in acting capacities to bypass requisite parliamentary approval and oversight. The individuals who benefit from these appointments become, in turn, invested in Maliki’s success and continuation as prime minister.
  • After the 2010 election, Maliki greatly expanded his control over many of Iraq’s civilian institutions, including the judiciary and independent bodies such as the elections commission, central bank, and the anti-corruption watchdog. 
  • Through his consolidation of power, Maliki has subverted the system of checks and balances that was intended in the Iraqi constitution. His growing influence over and limitations on supposedly independent institutions have tarnished the legitimacy and efficacy of these bodies, particularly the judiciary and the parliament.
  • Politicization at the national level has effectively compromised the role of the judiciary as an independent check on the other branches of government. The judiciary has been an accomplice to the centralization of power by Prime Minister Maliki through a series of controversial rulings that have empowered the executive and restrained or removed his political rivals.
  • Maliki has used his parliamentary allies and favorable judicial rulings to remove key personnel deemed obstacles to his control of Iraq’s independent bodies, the most important of which are the Iraqi High Electoral Commission (IHEC), the Central Bank of Iraq (CBI), and the Integrity Commission. The prime minister has also used his influence over these bodies to check his political rivals and shield his political allies. 
  • Free and fair elections will be nearly impossible in the current political environment without an impartial and independent IHEC. Thus, Maliki’s efforts to influence, if not control, IHEC are particularly concerning because it suggests his effort to subvert Iraq’s electoral process.
  • The Council of Representatives (CoR) has not been an effective check on executive authorities. The parliament’s internal dysfunction, combined with Maliki’s own efforts to undermine the body, has limited its oversight ability. Maliki has adopted a strategy meant to keep his parliamentary opposition fragmented and prevent the coalescing of a broad anti-Maliki bloc. This has proved largely successful, aided by the opposition’s own internal divisions.
  • Maliki’s requests have prompted judicial rulings that have curbed the legislating and accountability powers of the parliament, namely by preventing the CoR from initiating legislation and limiting its ability to question ministers.
  • Maliki uses his control over the security and civil institutions mentioned above in various ways to advance his interests. One objective is to dismantle Iraqiyya’s senior leadership, while another is to expand his control over Iraq’s financial institutions. Maliki has also used his control over the security forces and judiciary to defuse a federalism challenge from several Iraqi provinces. De-Ba‘athification, along with accusations of terrorism and corruption, have become convenient political tools to discredit and even remove opponents. Maliki is not the only politician in Iraq to use these tools, but he has the most latitude in doing so on account of his growing executive authority.
  • Maliki still faces some challenges to his power that he will likely have to face in the near future. The first stems from his rivalry with the Sadrists for political dominance among Iraqi Shi‘a. The second comes from the growing Sunni discontent with the status quo. While the demonstrations have thus far remained largely peaceful, they have mobilized a significant number of Sunnis in opposition to the government, something that Maliki has sought to avoid. 
  • There is also the danger that Sunni discontent and the instability in Syria may translate into a resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Any security crackdown or further actions seen as disenfranchising the Sunni participation might actually exacerbate the drivers of instability that could fuel a regeneration of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
  • Maliki will seek to keep the Sunni fragmented by alienating or removing leaders from rival political parties (such as Nujaifi, Issawi, and Allawi), while cultivating allied Sunni politicians and political groups. The promise of patronage that participation in the Maliki government affords is often a strong motivator for politicians.
  • The upcoming provincial and parliamentary elections present an important political test for Maliki. If the status quo prevails in the coming months, Maliki will emerge from these next elections in a better political position. A strong electoral showing in the provinces would allow him to increase his number of seats in the parliament, to regain the premiership, and to make the parliament even more of a rubber stamp, ideally by installing amore pliable speaker to accelerate the move toward majoritarianism.
  • The United States has largely stayed quiet on the issue of Maliki’s consolidation. This silence gives the perception of consent, even if the United States harbors reservations about Maliki’s authoritarian behaviors and intentions.
  • U.S. engagement with Iraq in recent years has focused more on the need for preserving stability and providing Iraq with security assistance. Such assistance has ignored the political context that is helping to fuel security challenges and has only strengthened the hand of the prime minister, especially given Maliki’s tight control of the security forces.
  • Maliki—in his willingness to support the Assad regime in Syria and unwillingness to abide by U.S. sanctions on Iran—is pursuing a regional policy that is much closer to Iran’s than that of the United States.
  • The U.S. does retain leverage within Iraq, but it must use it more effectively. In light of these factors, the United States should reevaluate its relationship with Maliki and be more vocal in rejecting any actions that undermine the democratic process in Iraq.
  • The United States should seek a better understanding of how power is exercised within the Iraqi state. Additionally, American officials should engage more broadly in the political sphere and not simply focus on security cooperation. Greater attention to the timing and means of engagement will also be necessary to break the perception of unwavering U.S. support for Maliki’s actions. 
  • The United States and other international actors can play a vital role in enabling (or inhibiting) Iraq’s exit from Chapter VII. A willingness to speed, slow, or stop weapons sales under the Foreign Military Sales program may also serve as a vehicle to exert influence.
  • Supporting an authoritarian leader in the name of stability will have the opposite outcome and only exacerbate tensions and divisions within Iraq. Ultimately, the United States must recognize that stability in Iraq will only come through an inclusive, representative, and fair political system that protects the rights of all Iraqis—goals that run counter to Maliki’s current aims, policies, and behaviors.