Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki Enjoying Popularity Surge

Nouri al-Maliki

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is enjoying a surge in prestige and popularity. Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images
Dr. Ayad al-Samaraie

Ayad al-Samaraie leads a prominent Sunni party in parliament. He says his group is willing to rejoin Maliki's government, but they want the right to nominate their own people to the prime minister's Cabinet. Corey Flintoff/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Corey Flintoff/NPR
Kamal Fouzi

Kamal Fouzi supports anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Fouzi says Maliki is trying to crush the Sadr movement but the prime minister's party will pay for it by losing in the upcoming provincial elections. Corey Flintoff/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Corey Flintoff/NPR

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is enjoying a surge in prestige and popularity after government forces took on militias and insurgent groups in Iraq's major cities.

Some Iraqi lawmakers say the prime minister should use his newfound strength to revamp his weak Cabinet and push important legislation through Iraq's hyperpartisan parliament.

Before he took military action to extend government control in the cities of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul, Maliki was widely derided as a weak, ineffective leader who danced to the tune of the sectarian Shiite parties that brought him to power.

Even though his offensive in the Shiite-dominated city of Basra got off to a shaky start in March, Maliki's troops got help and air support from U.S. forces, and they eventually prevailed. With American help, the Iraqi Army went on to stage similar offensives in the Shiite enclave of Sadr City in Baghdad and in the northern city of Mosul, which had become a stronghold of al-Qaida and other Sunni militant groups.

Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of parliament, says Maliki made "a courageous first step" and showed himself as a nonsectarian leader by going after Shiite militias first. Othman says that if the prime minister had begun his military operations in Mosul, he would have been perceived as attacking Sunnis while protecting his fellow Shiites.

Othman believes the prime minister's new popularity could give him leverage to revamp his weak Cabinet and break some of the partisan deadlocks that have kept important legislation stalled in parliament. Othman says that if Maliki wants to build on his success, he's going to have to show people that he can provide basic services, such as electricity, clean water, health care and jobs, but that the prime minister can't do that unless he throws out incompetent and corrupt ministers and replaces them with effective managers.

That's easier said than done, says Wamidh Nadhmi, a political science professor at Baghdad University. Nadhmi points out that half of Maliki's Cabinet posts have been vacant for eight months and says the prime minister hasn't shown the will or the ability to fill them with good candidates.

Part of the problem, Nadhmi says, is that Maliki's political bloc doesn't have a majority in parliament, so he's dependent on other parties to form a ruling coalition. To make matters worse, Maliki's own Dawa Party is deeply divided, and he has to keep the factions happy by doling out ministerial jobs, regardless of competence.

While politicans inside and outside Maliki's coalition decry what they say is incompetence and corruption in the government, they show little inclination to change the system.

"I don't think any party leader will work against his party's requests or demands," says Ayad al-Samaraie, the head of the Iraqi Islamic Party, which is part of the biggest Sunni bloc in parliament.

"Actually," Samaraie says, "Maliki should coordinate between his party's demands and what the other parties want from him."

Samaraie's bloc left Maliki's government last year, and now he's negotiating to get back in. The price of that support, he says, should be six or seven ministries.

"If we are going to share in the Cabinet, then obviously we have the right to nominate the people who are to fill those positions," he says.

Not everyone agrees that Maliki's military successes will translate into popular support. Parliament member Kamal Fouzi, a member of the Sadr movement, says the Iraqi army was particularly brutal against Shiites in Basra and Sadr City, while being lenient with Sunni extremists in the northern city of Mosul.

Fouzi sees Maliki's actions as a way to crush the movement loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, but he insists that the prime minister has provoked a backlash among Shiites. He says the Sadr movement is gathering political strength and that Maliki's party will lose in provincial elections that are tentatively scheduled for this fall.

Kurdish lawmaker Othman says the prime minister could overcome his country's political establishment by rallying popular support.

"He should come on television," Othman says, "and talk directly to the people. He'll get their support. I'm sure of it. Then he won't need to ask permission from the parties every time he takes a step."

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