With the departure of American forces from Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has proceeded to consolidate and expand his political power. His moves have largely come at the expense of Iraqi Sunnis. Just look at what he's done lately: al-Maliki has branded the country's highest-ranking Sunni official, Sunni vice-president Tariq al-Hashimi, with running death squads, ordered an arrest warrant for al-Hashimi, maneuvered to remove the deputy prime minister Saleh al-Mutlak, another Sunni, threatened to exclude the Iraqiya bloc (a Sunni faction led by al-Hashimi) from his government, and "warned that 'rivers of blood' would flow if Sunnis seek an autonomous region.
Al-Maliki's power play has been primarily framed in terms of the Shia-Sunni sectarian struggle that has plagued Iraq since the ouster of Saddam Hussein. But keep in mind, though, his actions and statements shouldn't be viewed in isolation. Rather, al-Maliki's recent strong-arm tactics and his attempts to maximize his power, which by themselves are troubling enough, are just the latest in a string of moves over the last several years to strengthen his power over all parts the state. Arguably, while al-Maliki has intentionally targeted Sunnis, his power play extends beyond the sectarian struggle. It seems he's mostly bent on becoming an unquestioned autocrat, eliminating whomever (Sunni or Shia) looks to circumscribe his power in any way. And as James Fearon puts it, "now that U.S. troops are gone, this somehow makes it is easier or more possible from him to ditch the agreement and carry out his authoritarian designs," such as overturning the American-brokered power sharing deal.
Consider this. Al-Maliki now:
runs the Defense and Interior Ministries and has created a separate security force that answers to him alone. He has bypassed parliament to install Shiite allies in key positions, and he has used his control over state funds and resources to gain leverage with the judiciary and oversight agencies like the anti-graft Integrity Commission....His control over funds for assigning security details for judges, for example, or offering them safe housing out of militants' reach and inside Baghdad's heavily protected Green Zone has meant that many senior judges became beholden to al-Maliki.
And despite promises not to run again, sources indicate he'll probably run for another term in office. Al-Maliki also works behind the scenes to protect his allies, loyalists, and sycophants, usually fellow Shias, against claims of misconduct and corruption, either preventing them from being charged or getting charges against them dismissed.
What are the consequences of al-Maliki's power grab?
(1) It has fractured, and could destroy, the unity government. The Iraqiya bloc to which al-Hashimi belongs is boycotting parliament and cabinet, complaining that al-Maliki does not share power, and it is threatening to pull out of the unity government entirely. And Al-Maliki, as mentioned above, has threatened to expel them from his government. For now, al-Maliki has backed off these threats. According to news reports:
Despite ministers belonging to the Iraqiya bloc skipping Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting, Maliki declined to follow through on an earlier threat to sack them, instead declaring they were on “extended leave,” Maliki’s spokesman said.
“We cannot allow the government’s work to stop,” Ali Mussawi said.
“Their absence gave us two choices – either fire them or consider them on leave. The Cabinet voted that they were considered to be on extended leave.”
(2) It has reignited Sunni-Shia relations. Over the last three weeks, a wave of violence has hit Iraq, as Sunni militants, reportedly either working with or through al-Qaeda, have bombed Shia neighborhoods. The attacks of December 22 and January 5 were especially deadly, killing 69 and 72 people, respectively.
(3) The violence has fostered fears, both in Iraq and abroad, that the death and destruction could reach 2005-2007 levels and, even worse, that Iraq could deteriorate into civil war. A major concern is that Iraqi Sunnis, once again, believe they have no viable peaceful means of recourse to protect their interests, as the political and legal games, in their view, are rigged to their disadvantage. Added to that, Sunnis see American support for the Iraqi government as providing al-Maliki with the requisite cover to do as he pleases internally. Unfortunately, these two observations, in combination, are leading a growing number of Sunnis to consider violence as a way to settle old and new scores and defend interests.
(4) But if al-Maliki overreaches, he could erode his own bases of support. Already, some of his Shia backers, most notably the political wing headed by Muqtada al-Sadr, have called for new elections as way to resolve the current political turmoil. As we know, the Shia political elite are extremely consequential to al-Maliki. Should he lose key Shia backers, then he'd lack power to continue to govern and rule. Thus, it's in his incentive to assuage their concerns, which could moderate al-Maliki's behavior.
A few central issues, then, need to be answered. Is there any daylight between the political interests and values of key Shia political elites and al-Maliki? If so, will Shias forcefully advocate their political preferences while at the same time seek to water down if not block those of al-Malikial-Malikis continued misuses and abuses of power. The bright side is that there are at least some Iraq Shia politicians who, for various personal and political reasons, won't support dividing Iraq and running the country into the ground. But are there enough to provide a solid counterweight to al-Maliki?