Last week, a few hours after his unexpected dismissal from his job, Iraq’s ex-Minister of Finance, Hoshyar Zebari, gave a press conference. Zebari was voted out of his job by other MPs for “alleged corruption and mishandling of public funds”, news agency Reuters reported. Zebari denies this and during the press conference he laid the blame for his dismissal squarely at the feet of another Iraqi politician: Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
“The side that is behind the questioning and withdrawal of confidence is … Nouri al-Maliki,” Zebari, the veteran Iraqi Kurdish politician who was previously Iraq’s Foreign Minister, said. “The target of these political interrogations is not specific ministers. The goal is to reach the head of executive authority, bring down the government and confuse the political situation … because of very clear grudges, malice and hatred,” he added.
Zebari is the second minister to be dismissed by Parliament within a month. The other was the country's Defence Minister Khaled al-Obeidi, who was voted out in a secret ballot – later criticized by sitting Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi – on similar charges of corruption.
All of this action is being led by a new group in Baghdad’s Parliament that calls itself the Reform Front. This group claims that it is seeking political reform and to confront corrupt politicians. However, it has become clear that in reality the group is being led by al-Maliki.
The former prime minister currently doesn’t hold any position of power. Although his bloc won enough votes in the last federal elections, he was an unpopular choice for the top job, having been seen as largely empowering himself and his allies over his two terms. The various parties that made up al-Maliki’s bloc chose to put al-Abadi in the prime minister’s office instead. Even back then al-Maliki said that that was a mistake – to choose al-Abadi – and that it would be corrected.
And his last official post – Vice President of Iraq – has now been cancelled, as part of an al-Abadi campaign to streamline the government and combat corruption.
Local analysts will see the irony: During his eight years in power al-Maliki himself refused to be questioned in Parliament.
Ever since he lost the top job, al-Maliki has been critical of the government led by his rival (and his own party) and has made many provocative statements about Sunni Muslim and Iraqi Kurdish politicians. His contrary attitude has seen the Shiite Muslim alliance, that he once led, come apart, split between those who support him and those who do not.
It is clear that al-Maliki hasn’t lost his skills at political poker. He holds several aces that may well help him achieve his likely desired goals of returning to power and/or kicking al-Abadi out.
Firstly, if al-Maliki is behind the Reform Front - some MPs have denied it – then he is the puppet master behind a significantly large voting bloc in Parliament. And then he also has his close relationships with the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias to help him; some of their leaders have political ambitions and will likely enter the political arena soon. Thirdly, al-Maliki is closest to Iran, one of the major foreign influencers in Iraq, along with the US.
In April 2016, around one hundred MPs announced that they would form a new group and named themselves the Reform Front. This included many of the pro-al-Maliki politicians from al-Maliki’s own Shiite-Muslim-dominated Dawa party, which is also al-Abadi’s party, as well as Shiite Muslim MPs affiliated with the Badr organisation. But the new grouping also included Sunni Muslim MPs, who crossed the floor, as well as some independent MPs.
There had been plenty of internal differences within Parliament’s major blocs, usually split along ethnic or sectarian lines into Shiite Muslim, Sunni Muslim and Kurdish. Al-Maliki exploited those differences and now he stands behind a group that includes almost one-third of all MPs. The other two-thirds of MPs appear to be busy with their own infighting and seem to find it hard to confront the Reform Front.
The Reform Front first demonstrated its muscle with the successful dismissal of the Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, Salim al-Jibouri. However, al-Jibouri was reinstated after al-Maliki intervened, saying that the meeting during which the decision was taken, was illegal.
The Reform Front has eventually become more active and has been contesting more and more laws and suspending the passing of many, as well as the work of Parliament. Then the Reform Front launched a new campaign during which members demanded that suspect politicians be questioned.
There are three MPs who do most of this work and all three are known for their loyalty to al-Maliki. They are Alia Nassif, who sparked the action that led to al-Obeidi’s dismissal, Haitham al-Jibouri, who worked to dismiss Zebari and Hanan al-Fatlawi, a regular al-Maliki defender, who is now seeking to put questions to Prime Minister al-Abadi.
Over the past two weeks it has become increasingly clear that it is al-Maliki who is behind the Reform Front’s machinations.
After his dismissal al-Jibouri sought him out, asking to stay in office, and the pair seem to have come to an amenable deal. The Speaker of Parliament can prevent MPs being questioned, which is why, it seems al-Jibouri was the first to be dismissed. But observers suspect that after al-Jibouri agreed not to stand in the way of any further questioning, he was allowed to keep his job.
Zebari wasn’t so lucky. He also went to al-Maliki but it seems al-Maliki was not as inclined to treat him favourably. Some have suggested this is because Zebari is a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP. Al-Maliki has an unhappy relationship with the leader of the KDP, Massoud Barzani, who also happens to be a relative of Zebari. That is why when Zebari gave his press conference, he accused al-Jibouri of being in cahoots with al-Maliki.
Over the past few months, al-Maliki has also been making overtures to Sunni Muslim parties – including the one that al-Jibouri leads – and some Iraqi Kurdish parties too. The Iraqi Kurdish party he has been trying to get close to, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, was – until relatively recently – ruling the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan alongside the KDP. IN Baghdad, Kurdish nationalism seemed to trump all other arguments. It is only relatively recently that the two parties appear to have fallen out and al-Maliki has exploited that scrap.
Responding to the statements Zebari made during the press conference, al-Maliki replied that he was happy to take the insults, if it meant that corrupt politicians were dismissed from their jobs.
Local analysts will see the irony: During his eight years in power al-Maliki ended up trying to weaken Parliament and monopolize power in the Prime Minister’s office. He refused dozens of requests for politicians to be questioned. He himself refused to be questioned in Parliament and often accused MPs of trying to disrupt the government’s important work. Today he has completely turned the tables.
Meanwhile the Reform Front has further plans. “Parliament will continue to question corrupt officials,” Alia Nassif, an MP who belongs to the Reform Front but is not a member of al-Maliki’s party, stated. She said that over the next weeks, they would summon Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the Minister of Agriculture Falah Lahibi and the Minister of Health, Adila Hammoud.
The spokesman of the Iraqi Parliamentary Integrity Commission, Adel Nouri, added that pro-al-Maliki MPs, al-Fatlawi and al-Jibouri, were preparing to question the Prime Minister, al-Abadi, too. Nouri said this was due to take place sometime in the next few weeks.
As it has become clearer that there are other agendas at work within the so-called Reform Front, other MPs outside the group have become more critical. They say that far from being about reform, the Reform Front is pursuing personal and political agendas.
“The questioning of MPs has become a way of targeting people, with the aim of disrupting the government’s work,” Hassan al-Khalati, an MP with the Citizen, or Muwatin, bloc – the political wing of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, led by Shiite cleric Ammar al-Hakim – told NIQASH
But it is not just in Parliament that al-Maliki has been strengthening bonds and seeking new alliances. When he was in power al-Maliki formed an extremely dubious relationship with a more extreme Shiite Muslim militia known as the League of the Righteous. Since the security crisis engendered the creation of dozens more militias, formed mostly by Shiite Muslim volunteers to fight the extremist group known as the Islamic State, al-Maliki has also managed to get closer to those militias who have ties with Iran. This includes the Badr organization, Hezbollah in Iraq and Harakat al-Nujaba.
Al-Maliki has attended many of the militias’ celebrations and meeting and his approval rating among the fighters seems high. On the other hand, they tend to denigrate al-Abadi, accusing him of weakness, criticising him because he works with the US and saying that he doesn’t care about the Shiite Muslim volunteers who are laying their lives on the line for the country.
Analyst: We cannot rule anything out – including al-Maliki’s possible comeback.
Al-Maliki also has a far better relationship with Iran than al-Abadi and has been praised by Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
It is common knowledge that, behind closed doors, al-Maliki has already started to negotiate with the militias who have political ambitions. These factions have gained much in popularity and military power over the past year and they also have political ambitions. While some of their leaders, such as Haider al-Ameri of the Badr Brigades, are experienced politicians, others may quite like to be shown how to work with Baghdad politics by somebody as experienced as the former prime minister.
So will all this mean that al-Maliki will be able to make a comeback, a grab for power that could unseat al-Abadi?
During the eight years he was in power, al-Maliki was seen to monopolize power, ignore and marginalize Parliament and the MPs in it, making important decisions all by himself. Financial and administrative corruption became more widespread during his rule and organisations that were supposed to be independent or have oversight, came under his sway. He was also seen to appoint those loyal to him to senior positions; this was particularly damaging in the Iraqi army and al-Maliki’s appointments there are still being blamed for the fact that the IS group was able to make so many gains in Iraq in 2014. The Iraqi voters do remember all of this.
“So it’s going to be difficult for al-Maliki to return to power,” suggests Ziad Ahmad, a local political analyst. “Even if he won in the next election, he wouldn’t be able to be prime minister. That’s obvious after the last elections. However,” Ahmad cautions, “the situation in Iraq and in the Middle East has changed a lot in the past two years and we cannot rule anything out – including al-Maliki’s possible comeback.”