Who is Nouri al-Maliki?

by Illustrations by Evan Wexler

When Nouri al-Maliki emerged as Iraq’s prime minister in 2006, he was so unknown that officials in the Bush administration didn’t even use his correct first name. Eight years later, his widening monopoly over Iraq’s central government draws comparisons to the man he once risked his life to overthrow, Saddam Hussein.

The reversal has been as dramatic as it was unexpected. When Maliki won office, it was because U.S. officials believed he could bridge Iraq’s deep sectarian divides. Today, rising tensions between the nation’s Sunni and Shiite populations have driven civilian deaths to their highest levels in six years. With Islamic insurgents on the march, Maliki’s bid for a third term now appears as tenuous as ever.

While his time in office may be numbered, understanding Maliki is key to making sense of the spiraling chaos sweeping across Iraq. But doing so is far from easy. As Ryan Crocker, a longtime diplomat and former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told FRONTLINE, “Nouri al-Maliki is one of the most complex national leaders I have ever dealt with.”

The political outlaw

When bombs began falling on Baghdad in 2003, Nouri al-Maliki was more than 500 miles from home, living as an exile in Damascus.

More than 20 years earlier, he was forced to flee Iraq amid a brutal crackdown by Saddam Hussein on members of Dawa, an underground political group dedicated to establishing an Islamic state in Iraq. Accused of working as agents of Iran, thousands of Maliki’s fellow Shiite Dawa members were rounded up by the regime, tortured and killed.

Maliki moved between Iran and Syria over the course of his exile, helping to organize covert operations for Dawa. “We tried many times to assassinate Saddam,” he told The New Yorker this year. “But we failed.”

Maliki climbed the ranks quickly, rising to lead the Dawa branch in Damascus, an assignment that has fueled questions about what role — if any — he played in several high-profile attacks carried out by the group. In 1981, for example, Dawa operatives launched a suicide attack that killed 61 people at the Iraqi embassy in Beirut. Two years later, they struck the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait.

While Maliki has denied any involvement in terrorism, those who’ve followed him most closely say his involvement with Dawa was instrumental in shaping an almost Nixonian approach to governing.

“It was an environment in which you tend to see conspiracy theories everywhere,” Michael R. Gordon, chief military correspondent for The New York Times and author of Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq, told FRONTLINE. “These days there’s concern that that mentality [has] carried over into the way he conducted the job of prime minister.”

The unknown candidate

Maliki returned to Iraq after the invasion. He worked briefly as an adviser to future Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari, and then, as a member of Parliament, he chaired the body’s de-Baathification committee.

Maliki was still a relative unknown in Iraqi politics when in 2006 — with sectarian violence rising dramatically — officials in Washington decided a change in the prime minister’s office was essential. In Maliki, they saw someone with strong leadership qualities, little evidence of corruption and the potential to form a broad coalition.

“The issue was how to unify Iraq to contain the violence,” Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told FRONTLINE. “You needed someone who could bring all communities together. … His name was vetted with the other two big communities of Iraq, the Kurds and the Sunnis, and they found him acceptable.”

But those early hopes soon gave way to concern. Maliki won office by promising to reach out to Sunnis and Kurds, but within months of his election, officials in the Bush administration began to doubt his sincerity. Their worries were underscored in a memo by former National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, in which he wrote:

Despite Maliki’s reassuring words, repeated reports from our commanders on the ground contributed to our concerns about Maliki’s government. Reports of nondelivery of services to Sunni areas, intervention by the prime minister’s office to stop military action against Shia targets and to encourage them against Sunni ones, removal of Iraq’s most effective commanders on a sectarian basis and efforts to ensure Shia majorities in all ministries … all suggest a campaign to consolidate Shia power in Baghdad.

Crocker, the former U.S. ambassador, also voiced concerns to President Bush.

“We said, ‘Boss, we got to have a change here,'” he told FRONTLINE. “And the president effectively said, ‘You know, guys, I know you’re under a lot of pressure, but just go sit under a tree until that notion passes from your mind. We are going to make it work with Maliki.”

To help make it work, Bush arranged frequent videoconferences with Maliki, in essence mentoring the new prime minister in how to run a country.

“One of the things President Bush decided was, ‘I’ve got to be his best friend. I’ve got to be his counselor and aid in helping him succeed as prime minister of Iraq. Because if he doesn’t succeed, U.S. policy isn’t going to succeed,'” Hadley told FRONTLINE. “And in some sense, Bush’s view was, ‘If he doesn’t succeed, I don’t succeed.'”

America’s partner

With U.S. help, Maliki would soon settle into power. He promised compromise with rival political factions, and made strides to modernize Iraq’s economy by sealing multi-billion-dollar oil contracts with international energy giants.

On the battlefront, he made important gains as well. Maliki agreed to partner with the U.S. in a key element of Gen. David Petraeus’s surge strategy — arming and bankrolling former insurgents to drive a wedge between the Sunni tribes and Al Qaeda. A move against Shiite militia strongholds in Basra and Sadr City won Maliki high praise from some in Washington.

“Whatever one may say about Nouri al-Maliki, he is a man of courage,” said Crocker. “He went down to Basra himself to direct the fight under constant shelling. … He showed that he would stand up not only to Al Qaeda and the Sunnis, but that he’d take on the Shiite if they threatened the state.”

The autocrat

By 2010, however, several warning signs had begun to emerge. As the Obama administration began making plans for a U.S. withdrawal, Maliki moved to tighten control over several of Iraq’s most important political institutions.

The first controversial move came in March of that year, when Maliki’s Shiite alliance, the State of Law, lost to the secular Iraqiya bloc in parliamentary elections. Iraqiya failed to win an outright majority, though, leaving its leader, Ayad Allawi, in a race against Maliki to find partners for a new coalition government. Under Iraq’s constitution, Iraqiya should have had the first opportunity to form a government, but Maliki lobbied the nation’s Supreme Court to issue a ruling granting him the authority instead.

More dramatic measures soon followed. In 2011, another high court ruling sought by Maliki gave him control of the agencies responsible for running the central bank, conducting fair elections and investigating corruption. The following year, he forced out the governor of the central bank, and arrested the chairman of the nation’s independent election commission. Under Maliki, Iraq’s parliament has been stripped of its power to propose legislation, while a new office of commander in chief has given the prime minister direct supervision of the nation’s vast military and security apparatus.

Despite his broadened powers, Maliki has dismissed critics who accuse him of a power grab, arguing that his actions are needed to safeguard Iraq from threats like Al Qaeda and the burgeoning Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

“I am responsible for this country being properly governed,” Maliki told a German newspaper in March. “That’s my democratic mandate … I don’t manipulate democratic institutions, nor do I exert pressure on them. I abide by the political rules of the game.”

A friend to Iran

Critics in the U.S. have also grown increasingly alarmed by Maliki’s ties to the Shiite-led government in neighboring Iran. Iranian leverage was seen as a key factor in Maliki’s win against Allawi, and pressure from Tehran is widely believed to have scuttled negotiations with the Obama administration over leaving a residual U.S. troop presence in Iraq. Following the U.S. withdrawal, Maliki drew ire in Washington for allowing Iran to access Iraqi airspace in order to transport supplies to the Assad regime in Syria.

“Maliki’s all about Maliki and keeping power,” said Gordon. “The Americans envisioned Maliki as head of a multi-sect government; they could accept that. The Iranians thought Maliki should head a Shiite-dominated government; they could accept that.” Quoting the Iraqi cleric and politician Ammar al-Hakim, Gordon added, “The Axis of Evil and the Great Satan are supporting the same candidate.”

Maliki has sought to downplay his Iranian connections, however in a meeting in which they discussed Maliki’s time as an exile in Iran, Crocker said the prime minister told him, “You do not know what arrogance is until you’re an Iraqi Arab forced to take refuge among the Persians.”

The sectarian?

What has outsiders most concerned is Maliki’s pivot toward an increasingly sectarian rule. Within hours of the last convoy of American soldiers leaving Iraq, his government ordered the arrest of Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, Iraq’s highest-ranking Sunni politician, for allegedly running death squads across the country. Hashimi was convicted in absentia and sentenced to death, sparking outrage among Sunni leaders who accused Maliki of attempting to sideline them from power.

“He will never lose the fear that the Baath Party will come back, and he sees basically in almost every Sunni a nascent Baathi,” said Crocker. “With us no longer there, he was going to go after what he saw as a potential threat, which was the Sunni leadership.”

The arrest three months later of bodyguards to Rafe al-Essawi, the finance minister and a leading Sunni politician, only heightened sectarian tensions. In Sunni-dominated Anbar Province, clashes between demonstrators and Iraqi forces led to at least 13 deaths at a sprawling anti-government protest in December, and triggered the resignations of 44 members of parliament. The clashes capped a year that saw 9,656 civilians killed in Iraq, according the website Iraq Body Count, the deadliest year there since 2008.

Today, sectarian tensions have only grown more intense with the emergence of Islamist insurgents from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. With several major cities already in the group’s control, Maliki’s departure could soon be imminent. In June, President Obama declined to endorse a third-term for Maliki, while a growing chorus of Iraqi politicians has called for him to resign. The question is, are the political divides that grew under his administration now too wide to bridge, or can a new more conciliatory leadership emerge in time to stem the rising threat?

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