Maliki's Power Base Crumbles As Iraq Slips Into Chaos

Jun 23, 2014
Originally published on June 23, 2014 8:18 pm

Tens of thousands of Iraqi men brandishing assorted weapons are responding to a call to arms. They invoke the Mahdi, a figure from Shiite Muslim prophecies, as they march in a recent parade in Sadr City, a Shiite suburb of Baghdad, the Iraqi capital.

"We volunteer to protect our dear country," says Hazem al-Shemmari.

When Sunni militants took over parts of Iraq this month, Shiite religious leaders called for volunteers to fight back.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a devout Shiite, gave speeches supporting the volunteers. But many of them, like Ali Abu Mutawa, say they don't like Maliki.

"I don't believe in him," he says. "His misguided policies dragged the country into this situation."

The country is slipping further into chaos. Sunni militants have made rapid gains, and have captured important cities as well as a crucial border crossing with Syria. Civilians have started to flee the fighting, and there's increasing pressure on Maliki to act.

Once, Maliki boasted that he brought stability to Iraq. But critics say that in eight years of rule, he stoked the sectarian tension that has now flared. As the country looks more like a Sunni vs. Shiite battlefield, many blame him.

Some also hold the United States responsible for supporting Maliki for so long.

"He was created by America, and they have allowed him to fail through eight years, and were satisfied with his work in Iraq," says Osama Hussein, another militiaman.

But that U.S. support doesn't seem as solid now. President Obama says Maliki faces a test, and that he has to be more inclusive. In doing so, Obama recognized the resentment of Iraq's large Sunni minority. Many of them say Maliki behaves like a dictator, that he's sectarian, and that he's marginalized them.

"It's obvious: He neglects the other side, the other sect," says Mahmoud al-Jabbouri, a Sunni who runs a corner store. "This is what makes him a tyrant."

Jabbouri was an officer in Saddam Hussein's army before the U.S.-led invasion of 2003. Now he's a shopkeeper because, he says, Sunnis can't get decent jobs. He says some of his friends saw no option but to join forces with the extremists known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Some politicians speculate that Maliki may not be able to keep the support he needs to retain his position. And there's no obvious successor who could unify Iraq. Even a politician in Maliki's coalition says the country can't carry on the way it did before.

The politician, Haider al-Abadi, says he thinks a new prime minister might be good.

"If they can agree, let us start afresh with new faces, so we can fight this evil," he says.

But there are other factors, including Iran, which is highly influential in Iraq's politics. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei fiercely condemns U.S. interference in Iraq, which could outweigh American pressure on Maliki. And despite opposition to Maliki, he may end up staying. Abadi says this is no time for squabbling: Iraq is fighting for survival.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. Iraq is slipping further into chaos. Since Friday, the Sunni extremist group ISIS has captured several more towns, including two crucial border crossings with Syria. We'll talk more in a moment about what control of those crossings means for ISIS. Some are blaming the situation on Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. They say that in the eight years of rule, he stoked the sectarian tensions that have now flared. In recent days, President Obama has hardened his tone toward Maliki, leading many to wonder whether he'll be forced out. NPR's Alice Fordham reports from Baghdad.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: One, two, three, Mahdi, chant these men with mismatched uniforms, dress shoes and assorted weapons. The men invoke a figure from Shiite Muslim prophecies, the Mahdi, as they march past. This parade is in Sadr City, a Shiite suburb of Baghdad. And these tens of thousands of men are responding to a call to arms.

HAZEM AL-SHEMMARI: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: We volunteer to protect our dear Iraq, says Hazem al-Shemmari as he passes. When Sunni militants took over parts of Iraq this month, Shiite religious leaders called for volunteers to fight back. Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki, who is a devout Shiite, gave speeches supporting the volunteers. But many of them, like Ali Abu Mutawa, say they don't like him.

ALI ABU MUTAWA: (Through translator) No, I don't believe in him. His misguided policies dragged the country into this situation.

FORDHAM: Once, Maliki boasted that he brought stability to Iraq. But as the country looks more like a Sunni versus Shiite battlefield, many blame him. Some also hold the United States responsible for supporting him so long, like Osama Hussein, another militiaman.

OSAMA HUSSEIN: (Through translator) He was created by America. And they have allowed him to fail through eight years and were satisfied with his work in Iraq - economic failure, security failure.

FORDHAM: That American support doesn't seem as solid now. President Obama says that Maliki faces a test - that he has to be more inclusive. In doing so, Obama recognizes the resentment of Iraq's large Sunni minority. Many of them say Maliki behaves like a dictator. He's sectarian, and he's marginalized them, like Mahmoud al-Jabbouri, a Sunni who runs a corner store.

MAHMOUD AL-JABBOURI: (Through translator) Sure, sure, 100 percent. It's obvious. He neglects the other side, the other sect. This is what makes him a tyrant.

FORDHAM: Jabbouri was an officer in Saddam Hussein's army before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Now he's a shopkeeper because, he says, Sunnis can't get decent jobs. He says some of his friends saw no option but to join forces with the extremists known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. And some politicians speculate that Maliki may not be able to keep the support he needs to retain his position. And there's no obvious successor who could unify Iraq. Even a politician in Maliki's coalition says that the country can't carry on the way it did before. Haider al-Abadi thinks a new prime minister might be good.

HAIDER AL-ABADI: If they can't agree, let us start fresh with a new faces, so that we can fight this evil, then I think that's good.

FORDHAM: But there are other factors, including Iran, which is highly influential in Iraq's politics. And Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei fiercely condemns American interference in Iraq, which could outweigh that American pressure on Maliki. And despite opposition to Nouri al-Maliki, he may end up staying. The lawmaker Haider al-Abadi says this is no time for squabbling. Iraq is fighting for survival. Alice Fordham. NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.