Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Who is this guy?

By all accounts (except this one!), incumbent Iraqi premier Nouri al-Maliki is heading for a second term as Prime Minister (PM). Al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition is running strong in early vote counts and seems likely to edge out former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s al-Iraqiyya party.

In a span of 3-4 years, al-Maliki has gone from an obscure party spokesman and deputy of then PM Ibrahim al-Jaafari to one of the, if not the, most powerful figures in Iraq. Clearly Al-Maliki’s position in Iraqi politics means that US success in the country is closely tied to his success leading his embattled nation. If al-Maliki fails, any gains made by the US over the last 7 years (OK, maybe 3 years, or 2…) will wither on the vine.

Given Al Maliki’s importance, one might suspect that US (or at least western) analysts have a strong sense of the man. Not so.

Several years and a (likely) reelection later, Nouri al-Maliki remains a mystery. His actions as PM are well documented, but the essence of the man---- how and what he thinks--- is as shrouded as ever (interestingly, President Bush never got a good look into his soul!).

This blog post will briefly examine just who al-Maliki is.

In 2006, when al-Maliki first emerged as a compromise PM, he was so little known in both the region and the world that there was some confusion about what exactly his name was (Jawad? Nouri?). His out of the blue candidacy sent western journalists scrambling. As a result, initial profiles on al-Maliki were conflicting, to say the least. The New York Times indicated that al-Maliki was direct, outspoken, and inflexible. Similarly, Salon reported that he was a sectarian who supported policies that would target Sunnis.

On the other hand, USA Today fired off a piece in which a prominent Sunni politician indicated that al-Maliki was more practical and flexible than his predecessor. Along these lines, the Washington Post and the BBC both published reports indicating that al-Maliki was a fairly reasonable person and an Arab nationalist.

Clearly, when al-Maliki was first introduced to the world, he was an unknown commodity. The picture of al-Maliki has not become much more clear during his first term as PM.

Some suspected that concerns about al-Maliki's supposed sectarian streak were laid to rest when he ordered Iraqi forces (with American backup) to attack Shiite militias in the southern Iraqi port city of Basra. Yet, he also failed to integrate the Sunni "Sons of Iraq" into the police and military forces with any haste. To further muddy the waters, al-Maliki recently supported an election ban on some supposed Baath party members----- while almost simultaneously reinstating 20,000 army officers who served under Saddam Hussein.

Seriously--- who is this guy?

A recent Time Magazine article likely offers the best perspective on al-Maliki's nature. Time suggests that al-Maliki is a "chameleon." The report quotes one western official suggesting that "...every six months we have a new Maliki... And as a political strategy, it's genius: in a country as divided as Iraq, it's the only was to appeal to all the people." 

Who is al-Maliki? In western parlance, it seems reasonable to describe him as a classic "politician."

In Iraq, after decades under Saddam Hussein, that may not be such a bad thing.

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