The World

Think Things Are Bad in Iraq Now? If There’s a Coup, They Will Get Much, Much Worse.

Nouri Al-Maliki
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki meets President Obama in the Oval Office on Nov. 1, 2013.

Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

With the notable exception of reports that Kurdish peshmerga forces had reclaimed two towns from Sunni militants on Sunday (thanks in part to the help of U.S. airstrikes), good news out of Iraq has been hard to come by. Sectarian violence has claimed the lives of more than 4,000 Iraqis since the start of June. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria currently controls roughly a third of the country, and has sent thousands of minority Christians and Yazidis running for their lives. Things are so bad that President Obama, who eagerly withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, felt he had no choice but to approve limited military intervention, in the process becoming the fourth straight U.S. president to order the bombing of a country that continues to play an outsized role in American foreign policy a quarter-century after Operation Desert Storm.

But things could still get worse—much worse. New worries are emerging that Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, the man whom Americans helped take power in 2006, has no plans to relinquish his authority after two terms as prime minister, despite a growing consensus from his former allies at home and abroad that he do so. Given the politics on the ground, that might require a full-fledged military coup. And that, it probably goes without saying, would be a disaster.

Fears of Maliki’s intransigence had been simmering for months, but began to boil over when Iraq’s president, Fouad Massoum, snubbed Maliki on Monday and instead tapped Haider al-Abadi to form Iraq’s new government. This move will, in theory, end Maliki’s democratically elected tenure in the government’s top spot, assuming Abadi is able to form a coalition government within 30 days. (In the meantime, Maliki remains prime minister.)

Maliki, who had made it clear that he expected to serve a third term, responded with a surprise televised address at midnight, during which he accused Massoum of carrying out “a coup against the constitution and the political process.” Those accusations, however, are now being largely directed at Maliki himself, particularly after he deployed an unknown number of elite security forces in the Green Zone in what was a clear show of military power.

The situation is unfolding rather quickly, but as of right now it appears that Maliki may do whatever it takes to stay in power, and that could mean a coup. For starters, such a move could throw Iraq back into a bloody civil war at a time when the government is struggling mightily to push back the advances of ISIS in the north. There are a number of factions within the Iraqi military, and it remains to be seen how each would align itself in the event that Maliki does attempt to use the nation’s military to hold on to power. But it is clear that any soldier engaged on either side of such a standoff would be one that wouldn’t be fighting ISIS.

And then there’s the headache that such a development would cause for the United States. Secretary of State John Kerry has already warned Maliki that any military funny business would mean an end to foreign aid, something that would appear to include military intervention. So if Maliki does try to hold on to power, that would potentially mean one of two things. 1) The United States cuts ties with the Iraqi government, leaving the Kurds and co. to go it alone against ISIS—something they’ve been less than successful doing to date; or 2) the White House is forced to pick the lesser of two evils and side with a newly established dictator over an Islamic terror group. Neither is likely to go over well in Washington.

While the potential for a coup was largely an afterthought with the world’s attention on ISIS, hindsight suggests this shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. Maliki has, more than once, been described as having a “Nixonian paranoia” when it comes to his enemies, and has taken a variety of steps to consolidate power since he became prime minister in 2006. Perhaps most notably, after seeing his hold on power threatened following inconclusive parliamentary elections in 2010, Maliki created the Office of the Commander-in-Chief, giving himself personal control over the Iraqi army and police force—something that makes fears of a military coup that much more real today. 

In a profile earlier this year that now appears incredibly prescient, The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins described Maliki’s obsessive, distrustful behavior. Here’s a relevant snippet on how the prime minister has increasingly isolated himself:

Maliki has grown steadily more imperious, reacting violently to the slightest criticism. He often claims to have files on his rivals, filled with evidence of corruption and killings. “I swear to God, if the parliament wants to summon me, I will go, but I will turn the world upside down,” he said on Iraqi television last year. “I will take a list of names with me and call them out one by one, and tell everyone what they have been doing.” Maliki has even resurrected a Saddam-era law that makes it a criminal offense to criticize the head of the government. He has filed defamation suits against scores of journalists, judges, and members of parliament, demanding that they spend time in prison and pay damages. “For any political difference, any rivalry, he makes a case,” a senior Iraqi politician told me.

One presumptive reason that Maliki is eager to hold on to power is that it would shield him from prosecution for any number of alleged crimes. The silver lining there, perhaps, is that this could be a bargaining chip to ease him out of the government. Sabbar Mohammed, a Shiite politician who opposes Maliki, suggested to the Washington Post that Maliki could be given a lesser post like vice president, which would keep him in the government and out of prison. Given his ego, it’s unclear whether Maliki would see such a demotion for what it probably is: the best of a number of undesirable options.

***Elsewhere in The World, my colleague Joshua Keating explains everything you need to know about the new American intervention in Iraq.***