Beyond the fog of Iraq’s power vacuum

By Charlotte Manson:

Maliki 2010

Recent reports pouring out of Iraq paint a rather bleak picture. With unprecedented levels of countrywide violence in 2013, almost 7,818 civilians and 1,050 members of the security forces were killed in violent attacks. Iraqis face daily upheaval as unpredictable disorder infringes on their daily freedom of movement and sense of security. The sporadic breakdown of order has raised questions on the unity of the state of Iraq as multiple forces are at work. Semi-autonomous Kurdistan in the north enjoys relative stability, whilst further south the insurgent stronghold of al-Anbar province continues to be a flashpoint. As a result, the legitimacy of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been routinely jeopardised. Yet, since assuming power in April 2006, Maliki has enacted a series of measures to cement centralised control in Baghdad and more particularly to the Prime Minister’s Office. Far from a power vacuum, Prime Minister Maliki’s time in office sheds light on new political developments in Iraq.

Beyond the fog of an apparent power struggle in Iraq, it is Nouri al-Maliki who currently holds the tightest grip on power in Iraq. Maliki’s military and political muscle continue to work in tandem, as demonstrated by a number of politically motivated acts. In recent years, Maliki ordered a number of violent high-profile arrests of Iraqiya politicians including Finance Minister Rafie al-Issawi and prominent MP, Ahmed al-Alwani in Ramadi. Heavy-handed crackdowns of anti-government protests in Fallujah and Ramadi have furthered volatility in the fragile al-Anbar province. Maliki’s politically marginalising tactics are not strictly sectarian though, as opposition to the Prime Minister among Shia Iraqis is often potent. Competing Shia factions have repeatedly undermined Maliki’s leadership in Iraq including Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sadrist Movement and the Da’wa Party offshoot the Islamist Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI).

In exacerbating pre-existing resentment, the successor of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) is working to exploit Maliki’s illegitimacy in Anbar province. In light of the looming April 2014 national elections, various strategic tactics are being deployed. In demonstrating the political clout behind his ‘State of Law’ party line, the Prime Minister has attempted to quash ISIS and restore order in Fallujah. With neither security forces nor a ceasefire providing results, the Iraqi Ministry of Defence is currently offering $25,800 (£15,500) for the capture of militants belonging to the group. Such attempts to destabilize insurgent strongholds are consistently met with sporadic and frequent ISIS-led attacks. With the neighbouring calamity in Syria, ISIS has broadened both its political objective and tactics towards the goal of establishing a single, transnational Islamic state from Damascus to Baghdad. The scope of ISIS attacks has stretched ferociously from ‘security forces and Shia mosques to suicide-bombings of cafés and even funerals across the country’.[1]

Insurgent gains and the unpredictability of their attacks coupled with the distancing of both Kurdistan and provinces from Baghdad, have mounted pressure on Maliki to assert his authority. A mosaic of forces – both political and militant – are by no means novel to Iraq. The difference lies in the framework of nascent democracy established from 2005 onwards. Institutions remain weak and provincial representatives struggle against centralised power. On the contrary, the pronounced focus for Prime Minister Maliki since assuming power has been to cement military and political loyalty to his rule.

So what (if anything) has changed in Iraq?

 Viewing recent events in Iraq as a sectarian struggle between Sunni-Shia Iraqis, neglects the broader picture. Processes of de-Baathification will remain a contested issue in the future, as will future visions of how Iraq ought to be governed. But sectarianism in Iraq is merely a useful tool. Intra-state violence is not occurring between Iraqis due to sectarian tensions as witnessed in 2006 to 2007 but rather, the use of force is employed by ISIS (and other insurgents) or by the Prime Minister’s Office. ISIS seeks to exploit Iraq’s sectarian fault lines whilst Maliki asserts the legitimate rule of law and his ‘dealing’ with al-Qaeda. Moreover, Maliki has not succeeded in gaining confidence from a wide-ranging Shia demographic and instead, from those loyal to his authority.

As Toby Dodge explains, Maliki’s first move in assuming power from 2006 to 2008 involved building a small, cohesive group of functionaries, the Malikiyoun, from his own party Da’wa and a patronage network either through personal or family relations. This move, coupled with the creation of two extra-constitutional structures in the security sector, has centralised power to the Prime Minister’s Office. Charles Tripp asserts that Iraq’s ‘shadow state of patronage and corruption’ is – once again – endemic in the country’s political leadership. Not only has Maliki garnered a tight grip on the country’s intelligence services and centralised the role as Commander-in-Chief of the Iraqi armed forces, but loyalists to the Prime Minister are constantly working in the shadows to ensure his position is secure.  Similarly, Levitsky and Way (later, Dodge) posit that ‘competitive authoritarianism’ has emerged from Maliki’s leadership. This hybrid regime is neither a closed authoritarian regime nor a functioning democracy, but:

‘Such regimes are competitive, in that democratic institutions are not merely a façade: opposition parties use them to seriously contest for power; but they are authoritarian in that opposition forces are handicapped by a highly uneven – and sometimes dangerous – playing field. Competition is thus real but unfair’.[2]

Processes within Iraq’s competitive authoritarian system have also emerged from Iraqi society. Vocal criticism of Prime Minister Maliki from both politicians and the public is thoroughly visible despite the routinised heavy-handed response. High-profile political figures have sharply criticized the Prime Minister and his authoritarian governance. The former Vice President of Iraq, Tariq al-Hashemi, recently blamed Maliki for the country’s crisis; the leader of the Sadrist movement Muqtada al-Sadr also spoke of the failures of the Iraqi political process due to Maliki’s tyrannical behaviour. Moreover, the participation of Sunni Arabs in the Iraqi political process marks a shift albeit marred by internal fractions between political parties. Having boycotted the 2005 elections, Sunni Arabs have seized the opportunity to return to politics since competing in the 2010 elections. . Iraqiya – a secular, large umbrella bloc – led by then Prime Minister Iyad Allwai has since come under pressure from Maliki as the party represents a direct threat to his rule.

Peaceful protests do take place whilst politicians own the space for discussion. In 2011, anti-government protesters organised the ‘Day of Rage’ which spanned the country from Sulaimaniyah to Basra, demanding the improved provision  of basic services, an end to corruption and food scarcity. All too aware of the steps towards tyranny from decades of rule under Saddam, the inherent flaws of Maliki’s rule since 2006 are continuously exposed. The public yearn for stable democracy. 62% voter turnout in the 2010 national elections underlines this commitment.

Mobilization through the utility of social media and networking sites is a significant tool for activism, as events in 2011 illustrate. Ultimately Maliki’s biggest challenge lies in the social fabric of Iraqi society which, at large, no longer fears criticising their government.

Sectarianism in Iraq, as in many others parts of the world, will continue to exist as many ethnic, religious and tribal lines exist embody the demographic. Basic services of electricity, reliable and clean sources of water, employment, education and health are the most pertinent issues for Iraqis throughout the country. Resources in Iraq are under further strain by an estimated 300,000 forcibly displaced Iraqis from Anbar province, along with the increasing numbers of Syrian refugees pouring across the border into refugee camps. The national elections will be a test for the Maliki in delivering free, fair and peaceful elections. Confidence in Iraqi state-society requires investment in the recognition that beyond this fog of uncertainty, a new democratic Iraqi state exists in which political participation is an even playing field.

Charlotte Manson is an MA student in War Studies at King’s College London. She has previously worked on conflict resolution projects in Iraq, Bahrain and Northern Ireland.


[1] ‘Violence in Iraq: The Nightmare Returns’, (The Economist, 17 July 2013) available –
[2] Levitsky and Way ‘Competitive Authoritarianism: The Origins and Dynamics of Hybrid Regimes in the Post-Cold war Era’, (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

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