Iraq’s Prime Minister May Be Replaced

July 23, 2014 | 0412

Iraq's Prime Minister May Be Replaced
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki votes in parliamentary elections in April 2014. (ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images)


Nouri al-Maliki, the only prime minister Baghdad has known since the United States invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein, may soon lose his job as his country struggles to form a government. Like al-Maliki, Iraq’s next head of state will almost certainly be beholden to Tehran, even as he manages an insurgency that threatens to tear the country apart.


Al-Maliki owes his tenure largely to his ability to placate U.S. and Iranian interests. For eight years he was able to keep his Shiite coalition intact, but his tactics alienated Iraq’s once-dominant Sunnis and the Kurds, who were once allied with the Shia. In some ways, his exclusion of the country’s minority populations explains why the country is fraying.

Government Formation

There are several factors in Iraq’s struggle to form a government. The Kurds have sought more autonomy by assuming control over oil-rich areas. More important, the ongoing Sunni rebellion, led by the Islamic State, has overrun large swaths of Syria and central Iraq, and rebels have captured parts of Mosul and Tikrit.

It is under these circumstances that Iran is trying to forge a new power-sharing agreement among al-Maliki’s erstwhile allies. While replacing the prime minister with someone likewise friendly to Iran will be difficult, it appears Tehran has narrowed down its choices to four candidates: Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, National Alliance chair Ibrahim al-Jaafari, al-Maliki’s former chief of staff and close adviser Tariq Najm, and Ahmed Chalabi, the onetime darling of the George W. Bush administration.

The international community has clamored for al-Maliki’s departure ever since the Islamic State began its campaign of violence, which is brutal even by Iraq’s standards. But the momentum really turned on the prime minister July 21, when Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said his country did not support al-Maliki. Specifically, Zarif said in a CNN interview that Tehran would support whomever the Iraqi people elected. Zarif’s statement comes after Iranian national security chief Ali Shamkhani traveled to Iraq to meet with al-Maliki, Iraq’s top cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and several other Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders.

Iraqi Parliamentary Elections Results

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The problem for Iran is that al-Maliki, his party (Hizb al-Dawah) and the State of Law coalition constitute Iraq’s political establishment, which Tehran has no interest in dislodging. Baghdad’s ruling coalition is based on a delicate balance of power within the Shiite community and, more broadly, Iraq’s three main population groups. In fact, the outcome of the April 30 elections, which gave the State of Law coalition a majority in parliament, validated Iran’s strategy. And even though there were rising calls for al-Maliki’s ouster, Iran was unprepared to replace him because it was dealing with an even bigger crisis: Syria.

But the Islamic State offensive has forced Iran to reconsider its strategy. Not only has the jihadist assault emboldened Kurdish separatists, it has also forced Iran to work with its Shiite allies to elect Salim al-Jubouri, a prominent Sunni politician, as parliamentary speaker. (Tehran needs as many Sunni partners as possible so that it can help manage the Islamic State-led uprising.) By Aug. 15, Iraqis should also select the president and his vice president, though internal rivalries among the Kurds, who typically occupy the presidency, could delay this process.

Iran’s Endorsement

But these posts are not nearly as important as the premiership, a fact that Iraq’s minorities understand well. In this context, determining the next prime minister is no longer a purely internal matter among the Shia; they will have to consider the Kurds and the Sunnis. Already there have been signs of discord between rival Shiite parties. A member of Hizb al-Dawah, Heidar al-Abadi, recently was elected as one of the country’s two deputy parliamentary speakers (one post always goes to a Shi’i). The move may be part of a compromise whereby al-Maliki surrenders the premiership. Bayan Jabr Solagh, a former interior and finance minister and a senior leader of the Shiite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, went so far as to say that since al-Maliki’s party got the deputy speaker post, it should not be given the premiership.

Potential Iraqi Prime Ministers

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Meanwhile, Chalabi reappeared to submit his own candidacy for the deputy speaker’s position. Interestingly, Chalabi took 107 votes — 42 fewer than al-Abadi — which was enough to force a run-off. After Chalabi agreed to withdraw his candidacy, al-Abadi won the second round with 188 votes. Chalabi’s move showed that he may not have enough votes to win the premiership, but he does have the numbers to block al-Maliki from retaining his post.

Chalabi’s maneuvering has fueled speculation that he is staging his political comeback. Already he has the support of the two main rivals of al-Maliki’s party, the movement of Muqtada al-Sadr and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which enabled him to be elected as a lawmaker. Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq chief Ammar al-Hakim has even said Chalabi is one of his top candidates for prime minister. Chalabi has considerable support from the Kurds, and with his secular credentials, he also has influence among the Sunnis.

However, there are some obstacles to Chalabi’s election. Al-Maliki’s bloc has 92 seats while Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the Sadrists combined have 63. Legally, the largest parliamentary bloc is entitled to the premiership. This is why other Shiite stalwarts such as Abdul-Mahdi and Solagh, who are Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq members, are not strong contenders for the job. If al-Maliki is replaced, the premiership is still likely to stay with Hizb al-Dawah. That leaves Deputy Prime Minister for Energy Affairs Hussain al-Shahristani, an independent politician in the State of Law, on the outside — unlikely to succeed al-Maliki despite being one of his top lieutenants.

There are several members in Hizb al-Dawah that are suitable for the premiership. These include national security adviser Falah al-Fayadh, al-Maliki’s closest adviser, Najm, and Ali al-Adeeb, who is seen as the second-in-command in the party. Ultimately, the premiership will be determined according to an internal power-sharing agreement that all the main stakeholders endorse.

In geopolitics, personalities matter more in the short term than in the long term. This is particularly true in Iraq, where a functional three-way power-sharing arrangement has yet to take hold. According to a July 22 report by the Kurdish news website Khandan, Shamkhani told the leaders of the National Alliance that Tehran approved of the list of four candidates. All these candidates are close to Iran, and though the Sunni insurrection has weakened Iraq, the state remains firmly under Iranian influence, even if al-Maliki’s successor is untested.
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