The World

Iraq’s Maliki Thinks He Can Ignore the Country’s Constitution. After All, He’s Done It Before.

A Detroit-area Iraqi casts her vote for elections being held in Iraq on April 28, 2014 in Dearborn, Michigan. Approximately 9,000 candidates are running for 328 seats in the Iraqi parliament.

Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

A devastating, destabilizing coup in Iraq thankfully appears less likely now that Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki has called on the nation’s military to move to the sidelines of the political fight over who will govern the nation. On Tuesday, Maliki’s office publicly instructed the nation’s military to “leave this issue to the people, politicians, and justice.” This order came only a day after the prime minister deployed troops in the Green Zone in a not-so-subtle show of force.

Maliki’s newly moderate tone came as a welcome relief to an international community that is focused on the bloody assaults being waged in the north by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Still, it’s no sure thing that the prime minister will step down gracefully. Maliki has made no such retreat from his planned legal challenge to his ouster from power. At the heart of that challenge, the New York Times explains, is Maliki’s contention that the Iraqi president was legally obligated to give him first crack at forming a new government following April’s elections. Instead, President Fouad Massoum snubbed Maliki in favor of Haider al-Abadi, prompting Maliki’s defiant stand this week and sparking the current constitutional fight.

The issue of who’s in the right is a complicated one, all the more so given the Iraqi constitution’s often vague and muddled wording. The letter of the law calls for the president to nominate a prime minister from “the largest Council of Representatives bloc.” In this case, that would be the State of Law coalition, which both Maliki and Abadi belong to. According to Reidar Visser, a historian and expert on Iraqi politics, there may once have been a case that Maliki deserved the chance to form a government. But such an argument quickly fell apart over the past 48 hours as the State of Law coalition split its support between the current prime minister and the man nominated to replace him. “Maliki’s promise to bring the case before the Iraqi federal supreme court will [now] be of academic interest only,” Visser has concluded.

Academic or not, Maliki’s legal challenge is only the latest fracas over the Iraqi constitution. Leaders from the country’s many factions cobbled together the document to meet a 2005 deadline. Even at the time, many experts thought the less-than-polished work would cause headaches down the road, with independent analysts tossing around phrases like “highly deficient” and “carry[ing] the seeds of future discord.” While such criticism was no doubt warranted, when it comes to Maliki and his belief that he should—and will—remain in power for a third term (if not longer), perhaps the more important factor is historical, not legal.

The last time Iraqi elections were inconclusive was in 2010. That year, Iraqi voters offered a rebuke to Maliki by giving a plurality of seats to the party of his main rival, Ayad Allawi, a more secular Shiite who had served as interim prime minister during the postwar transition. While Allawi’s party’s two-seat victory should have given him the first chance to form a government, that prize ultimately went to Maliki. Here’s The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins with the unconstitutional play-by-play:

[D]espite the gratifying election results, American officials said, the Obama Administration concluded that backing Allawi would be too difficult if he was opposed by Shiites and by their supporters in Iran. “There was no way that the Shia were not going to provide the next Prime Minister,” James Jeffrey, the American Ambassador at the time, told me. “Iraq will not work if they don’t. Allawi was a goner.”

Shortly after the elections, an Iraqi judge, under pressure from the Prime Minister, awarded Maliki the first chance to form a government. The ruling directly contradicted the Iraqi constitution, but American officials did not contest it. “The intent of the constitution was clear, and we had the notes of the people who drafted it,” Sky, the civilian adviser, said. “The Americans had already weighed in for Maliki.”

As the Times notes, U.S. officials have denied supporting Maliki, “saying his rival simply could not forge a coalition.” Still, it’s hard not to think that the United States’ actions (or inactions) gave him the impression that the prime minister position was his for as long as he wanted, constitution be damned.

Four years later, Maliki finds himself in a similar position, striking the same posture. The difference this time is that without the might of the military—and without the support of Iran and the United States—he may well lose out to the rule of law.