As the campaigning period for Iraq’s May 12th parliamentary elections begins in earnest, the politicians jockeying for power in Baghdad and around the country are a mixed bag of familiar and unknown. Powerful, well-respected men such as current Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi and Popular Mobilisation leader Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis are seeking to either retain their current powers or expand them further. Many others, their names relatively unknown outside of their home territory, are seeking to make themselves and their work known to the Iraqi people. However, a very small group of controversial men are seeking to reenter the political system that had once rejected them, and by doing so clear their name of their purported wrongdoings and failures. Two of these Iraqi pariahs – ex-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and ex-Mosul governor Atheel al-Nujaifi – seem particularly determined to regain power following their own disastrous periods. A look at these two men and their goals for the upcoming elections reveals much about the complex nature of Iraqi politics as well as the background political struggles that have plagued Baghdad.
Nouri al-Maliki’s political career began with the Islamic Da’awa Party in the early 1970s, where he served as a junior member of the then-outlawed political organisation’s ranks.1.Shanahan, Rodger. “The Islamic Da’awa Party: Past Developments and Future Prospects.” June 2004, IDC Herzliya After years of underground service with the party, Maliki left Iraq in 1979 following a general flight of Da’awa leadership personnel, who had suffered under a significant crackdown by Saddam Hussein’s government. Maliki fled first to Tehran, where he built links with elements of the newly-formed Iranian government under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.2.Shanahan, Rodger. “The Islamic Da’awa Party: Past Developments and Future Prospects.” June 2004, IDC Herzliya Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Maliki lived in both Iran and Syria in exile, returning to Iraq only when Hussein’s government collapsed in the face of the 2003 Coalition invasion. Maliki immediately reentered politics, returning to Baghdad with enthusiasm and launching several cooperative endeavours with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).3.Allawi, Ali. “The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace” Yale University Press, New York, N.Y., 2007 The most significant of these endeavours was Maliki’s work with the Supreme National Debaathification Commission, which was founded in June 2003. Maliki’s aggressive policy of debaathification and his support of urban counterinsurgency efforts served as a springboard for his career as Prime Minister, a post that he was elected to in May 2006.4.Allawi, Ali. “The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace” Yale University Press, New York, N.Y., 2007
Maliki’s tenure as Prime Minister was rife with controversy from the start. At the time of his election, Iraq’s Sunni communities found themselves lacking representation and targeted by both vengeful Shia militias as well as Salafist insurgent groups seeking revenge for the assassination of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June of 2006.5.Allawi, Ali. “The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace” Yale University Press, New York, N.Y., 2007 Maliki’s focus on the pacification of dissident Shia communities, who were restless due to lack of civil services and a growing insurgency, did little to earn him the trust of Sunni politicians or prominent sheikhs. Accusations of corrupt practices such as bribery or sectarian preference were constantly levelled at the Prime Minister’s office, even when the violence began to subside following the reintroduction of several American military divisions to Iraq.6.“Shadowy Iraq office accused of sectarian agenda” : CNN Maliki also struggled to rein in army officers who grew increasingly resentful of government influence on their ranks, and the state of the Iraqi military began to deteriorate in 2009 following the first set of withdrawals of American troops.7.Allawi, Ali. “The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace” Yale University Press, New York, N.Y., 2007 Spreading corruption ate away at Baghdad’s efficacy like a cancer, and as insurgency expanded in the rural western provinces, the Iraqi military proved incapable of successfully handling the vigorously growing Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shaam (ISIS). Cities began to fall, oil exports started to drop, and by the time Mosul fell, Maliki’s popularity had bottomed out.8.Cockburn, Patrick. “The Age of Jihad: Islamic State and the Great War for the Middle East” Verso Publications, London, UK, 2016 The collapse of Mosul, a devastating defeat that saw a few hundred ISIS fighters overrun an entire city and its multiple arsenals, led many distraught Iraqi politicians to call upon Maliki to resign. He tenuously held onto power until 14 August 2014, when under pressure from Iraqi President Fuad al-Masum he resigned his post to Haidar al-Abadi, another high-ranking member within the Da’awa Party.9.Cockburn, Patrick. “The Age of Jihad: Islamic State and the Great War for the Middle East” Verso Publications, London, UK, 2016
For a time, it seemed as though Maliki’s departure from the Prime Minister post would signal the end of his tenure in Iraqi politics. He had become a pariah for many in Iraq due to a series of poor decisions, an unfortunate set of coincidences, and his perceived sectarian slant that led to many Sunnis feeling disenfranchised. However, despite remaining quiet for some time following the fall of Mosul, Maliki never departed from the Da’awa Party’s ranks.10.Islamic Da’awa Party official site, islamicdawaparty.org, lists Maliki as a consistent high-ranking member. Instead, he remained at the helm of the Da’awa Party and held one of three presidency positions in Abadi’s cabinet, seemingly content with sitting out on the side. Yet even as he quietly supported Abadi’s efforts against the Islamic State, he began manoeuvring to put himself and political allies into power. When Abadi formed the Victory Coalition (Aytalef al-Nasr) in December of 2017, it set the two politicians on separate paths as Maliki remained with the State of Law Coalition (Aytalef Dawlah al-Qanun) that he had been working with since his departure from the Prime Minister position. Disagreements between Maliki and Abadi have widened an already present rift between the two, and Maliki has recently been making himself a more prominent persona on the Iraqi political scene. Maliki publicly spoke about the problems that he sees as rife within the Iraqi political system, rejecting the system of “quotas” that was set up by CPA head Paul Bremer in 2003 and asserting that Iraq “needs the establishment of a project that creates a government of political majority.”11.“Origins of Iraq’s Ethnosectarian Quota System” : Musings on Iraq12.“المالكي يتمسك بالأغلبية لإنقاذ العراق” : al-Asharq al-Awsat Maliki has insisted on multiple occasions that the quota system “blocked the process of rebuilding the country” and that the system will prevent a restabilization of Iraq in the future, a position that has led to intense disagreement between supporters of Abadi and Maliki’s faithful.13.“المالكي يتمسك بالأغلبية لإنقاذ العراق” : al-Asharq al-Awsat14.“Rift deepens between ruling Dawa Party’s influential figures” : Kurdistan24
Though Da’awa Party spokesman Hisham al-Rikabi refused to comment on Maliki’s stance about returning to the post of Prime Minister, it appears clear that Maliki at least aims to reenter the political scene with gusto.15.“ما حقيقة “حوارات” حزب المالكي لاختيار رئيس وزراء مقبل؟” : Arabi 21 As the campaigns have begun working to disseminate their positions and attempt to sway voters to their coalitions, Maliki has been active in speaking in public, including at rallies in an-Najaf and Baghdad.16.“الانتخابات العراقية بين مطرقة «المال السياسي» وسندان «التزوير»للمزيد”: Tahrir News Though he has not publicly stated what his intentions are, his public appearances suggest that he has a vested interest in expanding his support base, particularly among Shia communities. His insistence that the future of Iraq’s political security rests on abandoning the quota system insinuates that he intends to attempt major change, as the quota system has been central to Iraqi politics since the new Constitution was drafted. His bold designs also suggest that he has made significant plans with other actors under the table, and has directed his State of Law Coalition to attempt to gain a significant chunk of Parliamentary seats in order to be able to make the greatest impact possible. The Prime Minister position is not a requirement for Maliki to affect change within Iraqi politics; he needs only to gain a significant foothold within Parliament, and reach out to other coalitions, in order to challenge Abadi and his allies.
Atheel al-Nujaifi is not as well-known as Nouri al-Maliki, in part because his role in Iraqi politics was more limited both in geographical scope as well as in impact. Nevertheless, the role he played become crucial in 2014 when his post as governor of the province of Ninawa was forfeited by the complete vacation of the region by Iraqi military and government personnel.
al-Nujaifi, the brother of powerful Iraqi politician and current Vice President Osama al-Nujaifi, was born into a prominent and influential family and thus was readily handed the position of Ninawa governor in 2009.17.“In Nineveh, tensions between Iraqi Kurds and Arabs simmer” : LA Times At the time, his support among local Maslawis and other residents of Ninawa was massive. Documents from the time note that he received two-thirds of the votes from the province, and that Maslawis celebrated his election with public gatherings.18.Ninewa Provincial Reconstruction Team documents al-Nujaifi had the support not only of the people of Ninawa, but of his own militia that he took control of shortly after American troops began withdrawing from Iraq. This militia, called the”Nineveh Guards” (al-Huras al-Ninawa), gained a reputation among the local Sunni population as community protectors for their prevention of theft and other petty crimes.19.“Nujaifi: Nineveh Guards will assume province security” : The Baghdad Post As security deteriorated in the province throughout 2013 and into 2014 due to the expansion of ISIS, al-Nujaifi’s militia took a backseat as Iraqi security forces failed to hold their territory in the face of the growing insurgency. When Mosul fell, al-Nujaifi immediately shifted blame onto the Iraqi military, holding them responsible for ineffective tactics and poor leadership and claiming that PM Maliki’s sectarian policies and repression of Sunnis was destabilising Iraq.20.“Baghdad’s sectarian policies causing the country to become unstable” : Niqash21.“داعش على مشارف سامراء وإيران تعرض دعمها للعراق” : al-Hurra His critical and controversial stance made him unpopular throughout Iraq, and he was removed from the governor’s office in 2015 by a Parliamentary vote after they deemed his failure to protect Mosul unacceptable.22.Sowell, Kirk H. “The Regional and Domestic Political Context of the Mosul Offensive” Carnegie Endowment
Atheel al-Nujaifi has since remained a controversial figure in Iraqi politics, due in part to his strife with Baghdad. In late January 2018, reports issued from Baghdad which claimed that an arrest warrant had been put out for al-Nujaifi. This was confirmed by a post on Nujaifi’s own Facebook page, where he denounced Baghdad for “false charges” and claimed that he was being persecuted for speaking out against the government.23.https://www.facebook.com/AlnujaifiAtheel/photos/a.503664116386085.1073741835.197649346987565/1795662537186230/?type=3&theater Other reports indicated that al-Nujaifi was accused of collaboration with Turkish intelligence actors, and the arrest warrant for him intended to land him in jail for a three-year term.24.“النجيفي يعلق على مذكرة القبض الصادرة بحقه” : Sotal Iraq However, due to the circumstances of the declaration of the warrant, al-Nujaifi was able to challenge the ruling on the grounds that it stemmed from a complaint by the Waqf Bureau, not an official Department of Justice injunction.25.“النجيفي يعلق على مذكرة القبض الصادرة بحقه” : Sotal Iraq As such, Nujaifi asserts that he will “reject this injustice from sectarian Baghdad” and has begun plowing ahead towards the elections with his political party.26.“النجيفي يعلق على مذكرة القبض الصادرة بحقه” : Sotal Iraq
Alongside his powerful brother Osama, Atheel al-Nujaifi is a prominent figurehead within the Muttahidoon political bloc, or the “Unity and Reform” coalition (Aytalef Muttahidoon wa’al-Islah).27.http://www.muttahidoon.iq/ The Nujaifi brothers’ previous gripes with Nouri al-Maliki have led Muttahidoon to become outwardly hostile towards Maliki and the Da’awa Party, among other prominent political groups within Iraq. Atheel and other prominent Muttahidoon bloc leaders have roundly criticized Da’awa members, including both Maliki and Abadi, of pursuing a sectarian agenda, and have become so opposed to the Hash’d al-Shaabi units that al-Nujaifi and the Badr Organization spokesmen have traded threatening remarks.28.“منظمة بدر تهدد النجيفي :من يتهجم على إيران مصيره القتل” : Ain al-Iraq Agency Fatah Alliance candidate Moin al-Kadhimi has denounced al-Nujaifi as a proponent of “sectarian strife”, and accused him of knowingly creating strife between Iraqis in order to influence the political system into his favour.29.“منظمة بدر تهدد النجيفي :من يتهجم على إيران مصيره القتل” : Ain al-Iraq Agency30.“بدر ترد على اتهام النجيفي لإيران باختلاق زيارة بن سلمان إلى العراق: ليس بجديد على اذناب البعث!” Akhbar al-Iraq al-Nujaifi in turn replied to these comments, claiming that his opponents were the ones spreading such “strife”, and that they aimed to destroy Iraq with their sectarian policies.31.https://www.facebook.com/AlnujaifiAtheel/posts/1890136994405450 His rhetoric regarding Baghdad has also remained unchanged, as seen in his Facebook post about the arrest warrant, where he criticizes the ruling party in Baghdad once more for their policies of destabilisation and sectarianism.32.https://www.facebook.com/AlnujaifiAtheel/photos/a.503664116386085.1073741835.197649346987565/1795662537186230/?type=3&theater
It is unclear at this time what Atheel al-Nujaifi’s plans are, as he certainly stands little chance of achieving any significant government position, unlike Maliki. However, like Maliki, he has followed up on his fall from grace with a recovery that stands upon a constant undercurrent of disgruntlement with Baghdad’s policies. While Osama al-Nujaifi’s rhetoric has been more measured, given his current position as Vice President, Atheel al-Nujaifi has been significantly less reserved about his opinions on Iran, the Hash’d, and the state of Sunni majority provinces within Iraq. His barbed attacks against Iran and Shia militias have brought him criticism from the Fatah Alliance but support from politicians in Ninawa and Anbar.33.“النجيفي يعلق على مذكرة القبض الصادرة بحقه” : Sotal Iraq He has also previously claimed that Sunni concerns following the reduction of IS to an insurgency are being ignored, and that Baghdad’s reconstruction policy has favoured Shia communities and discriminates against Sunnis in Ninawa and Anbar.34.“السيد اثيل النجيفي: الشيعة بيدهم الاصلاح الحقيقي” : Muttahidoon Official These statements are not made without purpose; al-Nujaifi knows what audience he must play to in order to retain and even gain power. His support in Ninawa has fluctuated but he retains a significant body of supporters, and will likely be able to dodge any attempts by Baghdad to interfere with his campaign or arrest him thanks in no small part to the influence that his brother holds. By playing to what Sunni audiences want to hear and by campaigning heavily against the Fatah Alliance and its supporters, al-Nujaifi and Muttahidoon as a whole stand to gain in the upcoming elections.
Both al-Maliki and al-Nujaifi have a lot to gain in the upcoming elections, but the stakes are high for both men going into the campaigning stage of the election. Regarded as pariahs by different sections of Iraqi society and confronted by charges of varying magnitude, the two men are tainted by their own histories. The paths they intend to take will almost certainly lead them into into conflict with their opponents, but the magnitude and intensity of that conflict remains to be seen, as the May 12th election draws nearer.