This week Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visited the northern city of Mosul, which remains one of the most dangerous centres in the country. His visit was seen as an attempt to unsettle his political opponents, cause conflict within their ranks and show off his military power.
Ninawa, the province of which Mosul is the capital, is a stronghold for Osama al-Nujaifi, the speaker of the Iraqi parliament. Al-Nujaifi is one of the prime movers behind a recent campaign among MPs to withdraw confidence from al-Maliki’s government and the Prime Minister’s visit to Mosul has been seen as an attempt to defuse that campaign.
The other three leaders behind the current campaign to unseat al-Maliki – which has included calls upon Iraqi president Jalal Talabani to withdraw his support of al-Maliki and an apparent petition signed by over half of Iraq’s MPs, including members of al-Maliki’s own party – are Massoud Barzani, president of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, Ayad Allawi, leader of the main opposition Iraqiya group and Muqtada al-Sadr, cleric and leader of the Sadrist group, which is actually an important part of the ruling coalition.
So, in what some analysts say is an attempt to embarrass his opponents, al-Maliki chose to hold a cabinet meeting in Mosul, his adversary’s hometown.
Al-Maliki’s visit to Mosul called for extremely tight security. Entry points into Mosul were all closed and helicopters and planes flew overhead. The movement of vehicles and locals was severely restricted and on the day of the visit, all government departments were closed; exams due to be held at local schools and universities were postponed.
The cabinet meeting itself was held in one of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s previous palaces. The meeting hall was decorated with two large portraits that faced one another: al-Maliki’s and Iraqi President, Talabani’s.
On the agenda were many of the usual mundane, service-related issues and decisions about these were made. It was mainly after the meeting that existing political conflicts quickly manifested themselves when al-Maliki met with members of the state’s government. These were divided into two groups, pro- and anti-al-Maliki.
But their motivations are far from simple, especially in the much-conflicted city of Mosul, long a troubled town and the scene of clashes between Arabs, Kurds and other groups. Iraq’s third largest city is also considered by many to be the last urban outpost of extremist Islamic groups like al-Qaeda. Because of this the city has remained under strict military control; security is run by the Ninawa Operations Command which takes orders directly from the al-Maliki, also the commander-in-chief of Iraq’s armed forces.
The anti-al-Maliki group here supports Atheel al-Nujaifi, the state’s governor and brother of the Iraqi Parliament’s speaker, Osama. The governor recently managed to convince local Kurdish politicians to return to the business of the state after a three year boycott. Some saw this as a political coup, others believed al-Nujaifi had done a secret deal with the Kurdish.
The group that is pro-al-Maliki handed the Prime Minister a petition during his visit that demanded the withdrawal of Kurdish military from Ninawa. Among other major issues in the province there are the disputed territories – that is, areas the Kurds say belong to Iraqi Kurdistan and that the Arabs say belong to Iraq proper. If this matter is ever resolved, it could end up with some parts of Ninawa becoming part of Iraqi Kurdistan.
However the Arab politicians of Ninawa say they will fight this. Additionally the Arab politicians have also called for the withdrawal of Kurdish military present in some of the disputed areas; the Kurdish say they are there to protect the lives of Kurdish citizens living in the area but the Arab politicians say they are there illegally.
Politically it seemed that al-Maliki’s visit was also an attempt to play the “divide and conquer” game, creating a split in the anti-al-Maliki group. For instance, rumours from inside the meeting had it that al-Maliki was trying to limit Governor al-Nujaifi’s influence in this group by favouring Dildar al-Zibari, the state’s Vice President and also a Kurd.
Additionally, it very much seemed that Al-Maliki’s visit to Mosul was also supposed to be a show of military strength. Al-Maliki’s security forces virtually took over the city the day before the Prime Minister arrived. Iraqi air force planes and helicopters were seen overhead and Mosul locals’ lives were disrupted for around six hours while al-Maliki’s troops stopped them from moving around as normal.
Observers noted another thing that was not easily ignored by al-Maliki’s opponents: signs hanging outside army bases and stations welcoming al-Maliki and pledging the military’s loyalty to him.
Al-Maliki’s security forces also chose not to coordinate with local officials and in fact, did not allow Governor al-Nujaifi’s entire convoy into the airport to greet al-Maliki. They only allowed al-Nujaifi’s personal vehicle in. Some council members reported on the heavy handed behaviour of al-Maliki’s men and al-Nujaifi was forced to apologize to the people of Mosul on his Facebook page for the disturbance. “These measures were taken without any coordination with local forces,” he wrote.
Al-Nujaifi eventually responded to al-Maliki’s visit to Mosul. “The central government can make no real difference in the city,” al-Nujaifi said in a statement released after the cabinet meeting. “And I believe that those who visited, and those who went to Baghdad many times to prepare for this visit, are now feeling disappointed.” With this, he was referring to the pro-al-Maliki group in Mosul.
Al-Maliki’s campaign to take the fight for power out of Baghdad may not stop here. Sources close to al-Maliki say he may be planning similar meetings in Diyala and Salahaddin. He has already held a similar meeting in Kirkuk.