Thursday, January 29, 2015

Maliki Attempts to Re-enter Iraq's Security Sphere

By Sinan Adnan

Key takeaway Vice President Nouri al-Maliki is attempting to reestablish himself within Iraq’s national security establishment by engaging Iraqi Shia militias and the Popular Mobilization directly. 

On January 26, 2015, the official website of former prime minister and current vice president Nouri al-Maliki statedthat Maliki hosted a number of leaders of the “Popular Mobilization” and the “Resistance.”  He is the first senior Iraqi state official to host such a meeting publically. This meeting is likely a political maneuver aimed to insert Maliki back into Iraq’s national security affairs. 

Vice President Nouri al-Maliki meeting with Popular Mobilization and Militia Leaders.
Right of VP Maliki is Adnan al-Shahmani
The terms “Popular Mobilization” and “Resistance” have precise meaning. The Popular Mobilization encompasses Iraqi Shi’a civilians who volunteered to fight ISIS in response to Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani’s public call in June 2014 to support the Iraqi Security Forces in combating ISIS. The “Resistance” refers to the Iranian “axis of resistance,” and in this context to already established and seasoned Iraqi Shi’a militias that receive Iranian support. These militias sometimes lead ISF operations, sometimes conduct joint operations, and sometimes act independently to combat ISIS. Their long-term responsiveness to Iraqi state control is uncertain.

A video recording of the meeting was posted to the YouTube channel and website of Afaq TV, a satellite channel closely affiliated with VP Maliki. The recording also circulated on social media outlets that are managed and frequented by Maliki supporters. Between January 26 and 29, these social media outlets launched a media effort portraying Maliki as the “leader" of the Popular Mobilization by posting pictures and creating a Facebook page titled “Leader of the Popular Mobilization, Nouri al-Maliki.” The video recording of Maliki’s statement at the meeting, however, shows no indication that any sort of leadership of the Popular Mobilization or militias was discussed or decided.  

It is unclear if this social media effort was spurred by Maliki himself, or if it was the work of Maliki supporters acting independently. Maliki has previously positioned himself as the founder of the Popular Mobilization, for example during a speech he gave on January 1, 2015 while he attended an annual event of the Da’wa Party in Karbala. In this speech Maliki claimed that “the Popular Mobilization is an initiative we launched before [the] Mosul events.” Maliki also attended an event commemorating recently killed members of Lebanese Hezbollah. This was likely a deliberate attempt to portray himself as prominent among the militias.

The recent pro-Maliki social media effort has generated a backlash from Maliki rival and leader of the Sadrist Trend Moqtada al-Sadr. Sadr is also the leader of the Peace Brigades, previously known as Jaysh al-Mahdi, a prominent Iraqi Shi’a militia. Sadr’s response came via a statement from his office answering a question from a “group of Popular Mobilization Mujahidin,” likely members of the Peace Brigades, about Sadr’s opinion of Maliki becoming the leader of the Popular Mobilization. Sadr strongly rejected this notion and criticized Maliki, emphasizing that this would go against guidance from the Shi’a religious establishment in Najaf as well as the guidance of the current government of Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi.

An actual position of leadership among major Iraqi Shi’a militias that are supported by Iran is highly unlikely for Maliki, and the effort on social media to portray him in such a position is likely spurious. This is especially the case because militias such as AAH and Badr, Maliki allies during his time as Prime Minister, declined to back him during the political crisis that led to his resignation in August 2014. The video recording of the meeting on January 26 did not show senior figures from Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) or the Badr Organization. Even if these militias sent representatives, it is unlikely that this would be considered an endorsement of a leadership role for Maliki among the militias or Popular Mobilization.

One distinguished figure who was present at the meeting was Adnan al-Shahmani, a leader in Maliki’s State of Law Alliance (SLA) and a leader of the Iraqi Shi’a militia known as al-Tayar al-Risali [The Risali Trend]. Shahmani gave the opening statement at the meeting, praising Maliki and expressing his loyalty. Shahmani heads a bloc within SLA in the Council of Representatives (CoR) known as “Loyalty to the Resistance.” “Loyalty to the Resistance” consists of five representatives, and was announced on July 3, 2014 after the fall of Mosul to increase support for Iraqi Shi’a militias within the CoR.

Interestingly, Shibl al-Zaidi, the leader of Katai’b al-Imam Ali (KAIA), was present at the meeting. Kata’ib al-Imam Ali is a newly formed and effective Iraqi Shi’a militia that gained prominence following the fall of Mosul. They have conducted effective military operations both alongside and independent of the ISF in Diyala, Salah ad-Din, and eastern Anbar. Zaidi did not appear in the official photo set posted by VP Maliki’s website, but he appeared for a few seconds in the video recording posted by Afaq TV. It is unclear if Zaidi’s attendance was purposely obscured. This is not the first time that Zaidi has appeared with VP Maliki, and the nature of their relationship remains unclear. On January 15, KAIA posted a picture of Zaidi and Maliki during a visit by Zaidi to VP Maliki’s office.

         Second from the left is the leader of KAIA, Shibl al-Zaidi.                                 Zaidi during a visit to VP Maliki.

 Maliki most likely sees himself as the leader of the Iraqi Shi’a and feels that his loss of the Premiership was improper, given his relative success in the 2014 national elections. This recent effort to bolster Maliki’s image as a leader is thus best characterized as an attempt to augment his popular support with an eye towards future opportunities or to undermine Prime Minister Abadi’s government. Militias such as al-Tayar al-Risali lie in the middle of the spectrum between the volunteers of the Popular Mobilization and the more established militias such as the Badr Organization and AAH. Volunteers of the Popular Mobilization would most likely demobilize if religious leaders in Najaf order them to do so. Established militias like Badr and AAH, on the other hand, are unlikely to demobilize or seek integration within the ISF either at the request of Najaf or of the Iraqi government. Vice President Maliki may be attempting to empower smaller militias in a way that would make them less responsive to the state and the religious establishment. If this is the case, it would undermine PM Abadi as he attempts to reform and rebuild Iraq’s security forces in the midst of its war against ISIS.