Neighbors / Playing Politics in Iraq

Still struggling to form a coalition government, Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki doesn't think the timing of WikiLeaks' release of secret war papers was coincidental.

A nagging suspicion is rattling around in Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's head. Why did WikiLeaks decide that now was the time to publish hundreds of thousands of secret documents about the Iraq war? In his first response to the scandal, posted on his website, Maliki questioned the strength of these documents as they do not contain clear proof of misconduct on the part of the Iraqi government.

Very cautiously, he stated that his government will ascertain to what extent the documents "match reality ... or whether they reflect political conflicts in which Iraq and Iraqis have no interest." Maliki added that, "the manner in which the documents were published and the timing of their publication raise more than one question," insinuating that "known" political objectives were behind the leak.

Nouri al-Maliki campaign poster March 2010 (Getty Images)
Getty Images

Sources close to the prime minister (technically, the head of the transitional government ) believe the scandal was designed to foil Maliki's efforts to put together a coalition - something he has been struggling to achieve since the election eight months ago. The United States, say Maliki's supporters, wants Ayad Allawi to head the Iraqi government. According to the results of the parliamentary elections, held last March, the gap separating the bloc led by Maliki and the bloc led by Allawi is a mere two seats. But neither secured an absolute majority, which would have allowed a government to be formed without coalition partners.

Maliki's relationship with Washington is complicated. He was appointed to the post in 2006 after his predecessor, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, was ousted under American pressure. But Washington suspected Maliki of planning to deepen Iranian influence in Iraq, and did not believe he was not strong enough to stop the major terror wave that gripped his country from 2006 to 2007. During that period, Hillary Clinton, then a U.S. senator and now the secretary of state, even called on the Iraqi parliament to pick a less divisive and controversial leader than Maliki (in response, Maliki said that "American senators behave as though Iraq were their property" ). Even so, Maliki wound up being the leader who succeeded in bringing relative calm to Iraq, who forged a reconciliation treaty with the forces under Shi'ite separatist Muqtada al-Sadr, and who orchestrated the withdrawal of American troops. This was no mean feat, and the WikiLeaks documents indicate that Maliki ostensibly resorted to death squads to attain quiet.

Arousing American fears

Now he is arousing American fears again. Trying to enlist support for his appointment to another term, Maliki visited neighboring countries - including Turkey, Syria, Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia - promising them all cooperation and loyal service in their interests.

For a long time Maliki had accused Syria of supporting terror cells and allowing them to cross into Iraq from its territory to stage attacks; and then there he was, two weeks ago, embracing Syrian President Bashar Assad, and putting the conflict between them to rest. Maliki and Assad reminisced about the days when the former went by the pseudonym "Jawad," having fled Iraq in 1979 after Saddam Hussein sentenced him to death. It was from Syria that Maliki directed his supporters, members of the Dawa party in Iraq, and oversaw a series of attacks against Hussein, while also working as a newspaper editor.

Maliki knows firsthand how easy it is to move weapons and operatives across the Syrian border, and there was evidently a firm basis for his later accusations against Syria - but now politics takes precedence.

Likewise with Iran, where he lived from 1982-1990, Maliki would like to forge strong ties. His visit to Tehran last week was hardly his first, and he knows the country's leadership well. In 2008 he declared that "making an agreement with the United States does not rule out good relations with Iran." And like every Iraqi politician, he knows Iraq needs Iran if it is to survive economically and politically. Still, on his recent visit he also accused Iran of interfering in Iraqi affairs and supplying his opponents - particularly Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army - with arms and money.

Iran, for its part, has already made the political down payment for its continued influence in Iraq. It pressured Sadr, who is now residing in Iran to complete his theological studies, to back Maliki. Sadr, who comes from an aristocratic religious dynasty as the son of one of Iraq's important clerics, Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, and the son-in-law of another important cleric, Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr - both executed by Saddam Hussein - vowed after the elections not to serve under Maliki's regime and to return to Iraq only after Maliki is gone from his post.

But politics trump promises, and he announced that his 39 representatives in parliament will now support Maliki for prime minister. How long this commitment will hold is difficult to estimate, though, as Sadr has already demonstrated that political consistency is not one of his salient characteristics.

Enlisting the Saudis

But even with Sadr's backing, Maliki still lacks enough representatives to grant him a parliamentary majority. Hence the need to enlist the Saudis' support, to get them to influence "their guy" Ayad Allawi - the American's darling from when he served as prime minister and earlier when he cooperated with the CIA - to join his coalition. Saudi Arabia is in no hurry to back Maliki, and nor has Allawi abandoned his own ambition to become prime minister again.

The decisive card may actually be held by the Kurds, who have not yet decided who to support - that is to say, from whom they will manage to extort the most concessions. This week the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, Massoud Barzani, convened Allawi and Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdel Mahdi, who is also a presidential candidate, to "examine" potential cooperation. Maliki had already visited Barzani as well, and presented him with a document of proposals.

When this is the nature of the political contest that will determine not only who will be prime minister, but also what strategic game Iraq will play after the withdrawal of all American forces next year, it's understandable that Maliki would be under pressure upon WikiLeaks' publication of papers that could serve his rivals or expose him to a lawsuit. Though secretary Clinton was furious about the leak, she will not shed a tear if it hurts Maliki.

But Iraq has its own set of rules, which are first and foremost Iraqi. If a contented coalition is formed, the WikiLeaks papers will not even find shelf space in the Iraqi national archives.