Iraq's Maliki gathers his forces
DAMASCUS - Over the weekend, the Iraqi Ministry of Defense announced that it had arrested more than 150 people, including former Ba'athists and members of al-Qaeda, in the troubled province of Nineveh in northern Iraq.
Iraqi media trumpeted the news as a "massive crackdown" on enemies of the political process. Most ordinary Iraqis looked the other way, refusing to believe - after the massive bomb attack in their capital in August - that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is capable of putting an end to the security chaos in Iraq.
The premier, after all, approaching his fourth year in power, has failed to curb unemployment, attract investment or raise wages for employees in the public sector. He has also failed to create a real partnership between Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds, ruling instead with a narrow coalition of religiously driven Shi'ite politicians.
He has managed, however, to impose a certain degree of normalcy on the streets of Iraq, through a strictly imposed security plan that has succeeded at restoring relative peace, absent since 2003. After six attacks ripped through government buildings in Baghdad on August 19, however, "security failure" was added to the long list of shortcomings of the prime minister.
For all practical purposes, Maliki was politically finished after the Baghdad bombings - known as Black Wednesday - whipped up a death toll of over 100 Iraqis. These attacks, coming after 18 months of relative calm, struck a particularly raw nerve in the capital, and people began asking, "If Maliki's security plan was going so well, why then, did this happen?"
That is why any attempts at elevating security - like the one seen this weekend - even if sincere, will be scoffed at by ordinary Iraqis. If Iraq were a normal country, not divided on sectarian, ethnic and political lines, then no politician - not even superman - would survive the aftershocks of the August 19 bombings.
But strangely, last Thursday Maliki proved that far from being ruined he still has plenty of fighting spirit left as he announced the formation of a new political party, the State of Law Coalition. Speaking to around 500 guests at the prestigious al-Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad, the prime minister introduced the 55 members of his coalition - prominent Shi'ites and heavyweight Sunni tribal leaders like Said Fawzi Abu Risheh and Said Yawer al-Shummari.
The new entity, a coalition of 40 political parties, includes Deputy Speaker Sheikh Khaled al-Atiyya, Oil Minister Hussein al-Shahristani and the head of the Dulaim tribe, Sheikh Ali al-Hatem Suleiman. Other Maliki associates in the new coalition are his advisor Sadeq al-Rikabi, his spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh, famous woman activist Safia al-Suheil, along with the ministers of education, health, tourism, labor, immigrants, youth and sports and parliamentary affairs.
Thirty parties had already applied to join the new coalition, said sources close to the prime minister, and their applications are currently being reviewed by a membership committee. The new coalition was nationalistic, cross-confessional and secular, said Maliki, pointing out that none of its top leaders were turbaned clerics, as was the case with the United Iraqi Alliance that campaigned for power in 2005.
It is remarkable that after so many defeats, Maliki keeps bouncing back. Wasn't this man supposed to be finished, time and again, for his numerous failures, since coming to power in April 2006? What is equally astonishing is the undeniable fear that Maliki's coalition has spread among rival politicians throughout Iraq. Not too long ago, after all, everybody regarded the prime minister as a weak and colorless politician who would fall from grace the minute George W Bush left the White House.
In short, they never took him seriously. Today they not only see him as a political heavyweight in his own right but also are often heard accusing him of foul play, claiming that he is slowly transforming into another Saddam Hussein. Weeks before Maliki's team was born, his former boss, ex-prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, created another coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), an umbrella for influential Shi'ite parties like the Sadrist bloc and the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council.
The INA also claimed to be cross-confessional and non-sectarian, promising Iraqis to right all the wrongs done to them, by the 2003 occupation and Maliki's failed policies. They had offered Maliki a seat in the INA, but the prime minister politely declined, putting forth conditions that were impossible to meet, like an absolute guarantee to make him premier again after the 2010 elections.
Sulking, members of the INA warned that Maliki's political days were numbered, while Ahmad Masoudi, a Sadrist member of parliament, said that "early divisions" would begin to arise in the State of Law Coalition.
By nature of the INA's composition, it will invest heavily in its relationship with Iran and try to drag Tehran into the political game, to use it against Maliki. The prime minister, for his part, was never too close to the Iranians, although he also was never opposed to Iranian influence in Iraq.
For months now he has been trying to shed his sectarian image and appear as a spokesman for all Iraqis, be they Shi'ite, Sunni or Kurd, and not just the head of a narrow-minded Shi'ite party that is bent on getting revenge on the Sunni community for many years of persecution under Saddam.
He will be pursuing a policy very different from the INA, distancing himself from Iran and trying to cuddle up to Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan - and perhaps even Syria - to endear himself to Sunnis, so he can win their vote next January.
It would have been very difficult for Maliki to shine, had he joined the INA, when measured against heavyweights like cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim (who died immediately after the coalition was formed). Most probably, he would have come across as a political midget, taking into account Muqtada's popularity in the slums of Baghdad and Hakim's influence among the large and influential families of the Shi'ite business community.
Whereas when compared to political nobodies, like those running with him in the State of Law, Maliki is projected as a political giant. Can a group of lightweights in the new coalition, under the leadership of a prime minister who has nothing to his record but defeat, stand against the Sadrists, the Hakimists and the other powerful Shi'ites running for office next January?
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.