Once held up as a potential model for Arab democracy, Iraq’s democratic regression under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his alignment with the Syria-Iran axis of opposition to the Arab awakening indicate that its transition is going into reverse. But Maliki’s reported support for militant Iran-based clerics assuming control of the holy city of Najaf (above) would be of even more “momentous significance for Iraqi politics,” says one observer.
The Iraqi premier “has already done an effective job of capturing state institutions, in much the same way as the Ba’ath party did to facilitate the totalitarianism of the Saddam era,” reports suggest:
Maliki has been busy centralizing power in the country to a degree that is starting to resemble the situation under Saddam. His critics, including some members of his grand coalition government, say this has been achieved through adept political maneuvering, power-broking and use of the law to harass dissenters.
Recent reports suggest that Maliki has facilitated Iranian-based clerics assuming control of the Shiite theological powerhouse of Najaf (above).
Maliki’s “increasingly erratic and authoritarian style of governance” is also straining ties with neighboring Turkey, say analysts.
Iraq’s transition, “provoked by invasion rather than popular revolt, was never expected to fulfill US promises of a democratic dream that spread across the region,” notes a must-read Financial Times report.
“As things stand, the trajectory of Iraqi politics is clearly heading towards a new authoritarianism with the concentration of power in the hands of one man,” says Toby Dodge of the London School of Economics. Maliki has “proved to be an extremely skilled if Machiavellian politician,” he notes. “Despite his failure to win the March 2010 national elections, he spent 10 months outmaneuvering inept rivals in Iraqiyya to retain the premiership, without the imposition of meaningful constraints on his power.”
Once he became prime minister in 2006, Maliki “focused his energies on gaining complete control of the security services,” Dodge notes:
He took on supervision of the Special Forces, brought regional security agencies under central direction and created the new institution of office of the commander-in-chief, through which he filled senior military and intelligence posts with people loyal to him personally. When the departure of US forces gave him an opening to move against his political rivals, he was perfectly placed to do so.
Iraq’s government has proposed a “number of legal rules which do not meet basic constitutional and international human rights standards,” says a report from the Center for Law and Democracy, which notes that vague regulations “may be used to prohibit a wide range of expression which is either merely offensive or perhaps even simply politically unpalatable.”
A de facto alliance with Moqtada al-Sadr allows Maliki to rule through “nominal power sharing and de facto minority government,” says Reidar Visser of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. “As long as his enemies appear unable to unite in sacking him, why would Maliki do anything else?” he writes on Gulf and Iraq Analysis.
Maliki’s backers reject claims of autocratic rule, citing the constitution’s institutional checks and balances as curbs on his power.
“The power in the state is distributed between the parliament, the executive and the judiciary,” says one supporter. “The prime minister has less power than the prime minister in your country [Britain].”
But the politicization of the judiciary and the breakdown of the political consensus between the main Sunni, Shia and Kurdish blocs threatens to undermine the integrity of democratic institutions, say observers:
Iraq’s domestic search for a political consensus remains typically complicated. Tensions between the Shia-dominated government and the Sunni minority, which held sway under Saddam, are on the rise again as an assertive prime minister expands his power base.
That Mr Maliki is not yet in complete command of Iraq is clear from the politicking of his rivals, who still have the power to unseat him under a constitution Mr Maliki helped to draft in 2005. But away from raw parliamentary arithmetic, critics say the premier has already done an effective job of capturing state institutions, in much the same way as the Ba’ath party did to facilitate the totalitarianism of the Saddam era.
“Is the judicial system in Iraq politicized? Everything in Iraq is politicized,” says Laith Kubba, Middle East program director at the National Endowment for Democracy. “But is it holding? Well, up until now, it’s holding.”
The U.S. withdrawal removed a neutral arbiter between the competing sectarian power blocs and changed the country’s political dynamics, he told a recent Washington meeting.
“Consensus politics is dead. It no longer works in Iraq,” he said. “People want to play hardball according to their rules, and if they can get away bypassing the rules without being caught, they’ll try it.”
Iraq’s independent media and vibrant civil society have emerged as a last line of defense for the country’s fragile democracy, Rahman Aljebouri, the endowment’s senior program officer for MENA, said recently.
But independent media and freedom of expression are among the most prominent victims of Iraq’s authoritarian shift:
Zakia al-Mazouri says she was investigating a story of alleged official corruption in Amarah, southern Iraq, in March when she received a call warning her that three menacing men were looking for her at her hotel. The Kurdish journalist tried to flee town with her three children, but was arrested at an army checkpoint for allegedly distributing anti-government propaganda and counterfeiting money. Several hours of frantic phone calls followed before she was released – only to be detained for another hour at a second checkpoint.
Jailed for four months by Saddam Hussein, Ms Mazouri has grown used to persecution in the course of her work. But now she sees it on the rise again under the administration of Nouri al-Maliki, the Islamist former dissident now serving his second term as prime minister.
“This government that came now is not better than the old one,” says Zakia al-Mazouri in the Baghdad office of Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, a campaign group. “There is no real democracy.”
The media monitoring group has detailed “a noticeable increase in the rate of violence against journalists/media workers and restrictions imposed on their work,” it said in a statement to mark World Press Freedom Day.
“Multiple bills are being introduced by the government, which threaten to severely limit freedom of the press, general freedom of expression and Internet use.”
Iraq’s security deals “with a journalist holding a camera in the same way the way it deals with those they find possessing car bombs or unlicensed weapons,” said the JFO:
Three journalists were killed in attacks over the past year, while seven others survived assassination attempts. Thirty-one others were beaten by what the rights group said were uniformed and plain-clothes security forces, and 65 were arrested.
It said it had compiled 84 cases of security forces banning media coverage, 43 cases of them blocking the free movement of reporters and 12 instances of cameras being destroyed or confiscated. Two media organisations were raided by security forces and a radio station in southern Iraq was shut down.
The organisation also voiced alarm over what it argued were vague and far-reaching laws, from a journalists’ protection law that contains provisions for authorities to limit information, and a bill that penalises Internet use that contravenes ill-defined terms such as “public interests.”
Iraqi authorities have been at best inconsistent in defending independent media, if not complicit in violating freedom of expression, but “a cadre of feisty media practitioners” remains committed to maintaining media freedom, veteran journalist Sherry Ricchiardi writes in Iraq’s News Media After Saddam: Liberation, Repression, and Future Prospects.
In the last month alone, satellite TV journalists have been shot, beaten or denied access to news sites by security forces, and Diwaniya Governorate Council forcibly closed a local radio station, under the pretext of “breaching public decency and morality,” says the Society for Defending Press Freedom.
Maliki’s recent visit to Iran – “to whom he is naturally drawn out of political need and religious kinship” – cast fresh light on an important question: “ just how close is he to the government in Tehran, the city where he once lived in exile?” the FT asks, highlighting his meetings with President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad and “a lower-profile but intriguing encounter with Mahmoud Shahrudi (above, right), a cleric of Iraqi descent and noted Iranian power broker.”
Shahrudi is widely viewed as an agent of Iranian influence actively involved in promoting its militant Islamist ideology and undermining the politically quietist approach to Islam practiced by Ali al-Sistani’s Najaf school.
The meeting appeared to confirm rumors about a move by Maliki’s Daawa party to adopt Shahrudi as a collective marja, notes Vissar, allowing him to establish a presence in Najaf and contest the succession when al-Sistani passes away:
Any such move would be of momentous significance for Iraqi politics. Unlike Sistani and the Najaf scholars, Shahrudi belongs to the school of the Iranian revolution and advocates a leading role for the clergy in government. If Shahrudi should succeed in emerging to prominence in Najaf with the help of the Daawa it ..would change Iraqi politics more broadly: Those arguing that Maliki is moving towards ever greater coordination with the Iranian clergy would feel vindicated, and rightly so.
“But by visiting Shahrudi,” Vissar notes, “Maliki did nothing to kill the rumors about some kind of Iranian design on the holiest center of Iraqi Shiism.”
International human rights groups say proposed laws will give the government power to stifle dissents and neutralize political opponents.
“In Iraq, we need to respect all the ideas,” said activist blogger Hayder Hamzoz, citing a law that would mandate a year’s imprisonment for violating “religious, moral, family, or social values” online and life imprisonment for using computers or social networks to compromise “the independence of the state or its unity, integrity, safety.”
Basma al-Khateb, a women’s rights activist, said some of the government’s moves reminded her of the harsh controls under Hussein, before he was ousted in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. She said she feared that the new democratic system had brought to power groups with autocratic tendencies and conflicting religious and political loyalties.
“At least with Saddam, we had one red line,” she said. “Now everyone is Saddam. We have 300 Saddams, each with his bloc and his party.”
Iraqi security forces, under the control of Nuri al-Maliki, are today on their way to occupying the same role as the armed forces of the Ba’athist regime.…. After 2006, the control of this machine to guarantee his own survival became the overbearing strategic aim of Nuri al-Maliki. By the time US forces finally left Iraq in December 2011, he had achieved that aim. Iraq today has a set of over-developed coercive institutions increasingly placed at the service of one man, its Prime Minister. The clear and present danger this poses to Iraq’s nascent democracy, its civil society and its population is obvious.
“We might have achieved victory against Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath party,” says Ms Mazouri, the journalist, “But the Ba’ath party is coming back.”