It took four months of gruelling and protracted negotiations, bargaining and threatening, manoeuvring and arm-twisting before Iraqi leaders finally broke the prolonged deadlock that had been hindering the formation of a new cabinet, and agreed on a new prime minister. While the politicians bickered and argued, simmering ethnic and sectarian tensions continued to escalate. These were seen in the ongoing vicious cycle of reprisals, sectarian killings, and clashes between Shi'ite militias and Sunni insurgents.
The new prime minister designate, Jawad al-Maliki, has a reputation for being a decisive and direct politician, for speaking his mind, and for being a smooth behind-the-scenes negotiator. That is very unlike his predecessor, Ibrahim al-Ja'afari, who was branded by his critics as a rambling, inflexible, high-handed and aloof politician whose oneupmanship alienated many of his allies. But, like his predecessor, Maliki is a lifelong member of the Islamic Da'wa Party: a Shi'ite political group formed in the late 1950s as a clandestine organization and brutally repressed during Saddam Hussein's reign of terror. Like Ja'afari, he too owes his new post to the support of the radical young Shi'ite ‘alim Muqtada al-Sadr.
Nouri Kamel al-Maliki (Jawad is the more common of two noms de guerre he used during the opposition years, the other being Abu Isra'a) was born in 1950 into a middle-class Shi'ite family in al-Hindiyyah, a small town to the south of the city of Karbala. After he earned an MA in Arabic language and literature in northern Iraq, he worked in the education department in Hilla, to the south of Baghdad. He fled Iraq in 1979 and went into exile in Iran shortly after the Islamic Revolution. He was condemned to death for his membership of the Da'wa Party in the early 1980s. After the Da'wa party fragmented into factions, Maliki joined the faction headed by Ja'afari. He left Iran for Syria after widening disagreements and tensions between his faction and the Islamic Republic. Ja'afari left Iran for London. In Damascus Maliki ran the Syrian-based branch of the party and oversaw its "Jihad Office", which directed clandestine guerrilla operations inside Iraq.
In late 2002, shortly before the American invasion that toppled Saddam in 2003, Maliki entered Iraq in secret. Although he acted mainly from behind the scenes, after the fall of Saddam he was known as no. 2 in the Da'wa Party, who played a key role in the party's involvement in the post-Saddam political process. He assumed the position of deputy chairman of a commission formed to purge Ba'athists from political life and government. In January 2005 he was elected to the provisional National Assembly as a member of the Shi'ite United Iraqi Alliance (UIA). As head of the provisional parliament's security and defence committee, Maliki played a key role in drafting a tough anti-terrorism law to crush the insurgency. He was also deeply involved in drafting the new constitution on which Iraqis voted in a referendum held on October 15. In the process he managed to forge good relations with the Kurdish parties.
Despite his tough stance on "de-Ba'athification", which is anathema to many Sunni Arabs, who dominated under the Ba'ath party's rule and regard the process as the cause of their political marginalisation, Maliki has been welcomed by Sunni politicians. For instance, Saleh al-Mutlak, head of the National Dialogue Front (Jabhat al-Hiwar al-Watani) praised Maliki for being "stronger, firmer and more practical" than Ja'afari.
Maliki's nomination as Iraq's new prime minister has also been welcomed by officials in Washington and London. US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice has praised him as a reliable political partner. Zalmay Khalilzad, US ambassador to Baghdad, has described him as a tough-minded and independent leader. Not much can be read into such tributes paid by American officials: about a year ago they were full of praise for Ja'afari, whom they later came to detest and criticise.
Having agreed on a new prime minister does not necessarily mean the end of bickering among the country's political elite. Maliki has a month from his nomination as prime minister to cobble together his cabinet. That means four more weeks of arduous negotiations to choose the candidates to hold the various portfolios in the new government. One of the main issues is going to be control of the interior and defence ministries. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), led by Sayyid Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, is expected to insist on keeping the interior portfolio. That will be met with stiff resistance from Sunni politicians, who accuse the current interior minister, Bayan Baqir Solagh, a SCIRI functionary, of permitting, or at least turning a blind eye to, the formation of death-squads by members of the Iraqi security forces. The Sunnis are demanding that the defence and interior portfolios be given to figures who are not in thrall to political parties with militias. The Kurds, for their part, will be looking for guarantees to back up constitutional clauses and old promises that will cement their self-rule in the Kurdish region in the north.
It will not be an easy feat to steer between the competing and conflicting demands of various political groups represented in parliament and to arrive at a division of posts that satisfies all the main political blocs and factions. The Kurds are asking for a significant ministerial portfolio; they want to retain the foreign ministry portfolio or to trade it for the finance or oil ministry portfolio. Iyad Allawi's Iraqi National List is demanding that five ministerial portfolios, including defence, telecommunications and trade, be given to its members. For its part, Muqtada al-Sadr's bloc also wants to hold five ministerial portfolios in the new government.
Even after the formation of the government, Maliki will need to demonstrate some flexibility (a rare commodity among Iraqi politicians) that will enable him to reshuffle political priorities in response to developments on the ground, and to shifting and clashing demands in a fluid political atmosphere. As his parliamentary bloc lacks a majority and consensus is highly elusive in a deeply divided political climate such as Iraq's, he will need to forge alliances with other blocs on an issue-by-issue basis rather than on a programmatic basis. At some point, the art of political compromise is going to fray under the conflicting pressures and compromises resulting from this arduous process.
The growth in the power of the Shi'ite militias, which has recently moved up the ladder of security concerns for the Americans, will be high on Maliki's agenda. The two main Shi'ite militias are the Badr Organization, SCIRI's armed wing, and Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. Increasingly brutal attacks, perpetrated mainly by salafist groups against Shi'ite civilians in Iraq, have helped expand the role and activities of the Shi'ite militias. As the American and Iraqi forces have failed to stop the attacks against Shi'ite civilians, Iraqi Shi'ites became more inclined to look to the militias to provide them with protection. The problem is that elements from these militias and their allies from the security forces are thought to be increasingly involved in killings and reprisal attacks against Sunni Arabs.
Maliki has made no secret of his intention to rein in and control the militias by integrating them into the state's security forces. He has declared that "weapons should be only in the hands of the government." In this he has the support of Iraq's senior Shi'ite leader, Grand Ayatullah Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani. "Weapons must be in the hands of government security forces that should not be tied to political parties but to the nation," read a statement issued by Sistani's office in Najaf after he met with Maliki. "The first task for the government is fighting insecurity and putting an end to the terrorist acts that threaten innocents with death and kidnapping."
But curbing the increasingly powerful sectarian militias is not going to be easy because of the escalating sectarian tensions throughout the country. Absorbing the militias into the security forces is no guarantee that the militias will disband or cease to operate. It might simply provide them with an official license to operate under the guise of the security forces – a phenomenon that is witnessed in many parts of Iraq. One example of this is the Kurdish peshmerga forces, which were integrated into the armed forces. Loyal to the Kurdish region's two main political parties, Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Massoud Barazani's Kurdistan Democratic Party, the peshmerga have largely retained their distinct command and organizational structures and been simply renamed as units of the security forces. The Kurdish leaders have strongly opposed breaking up the peshmerga and dispersing them into the wider security forces on a non-sectarian, non-ethnic basis.
Much like everything else in Iraq, uncertainty surrounds Maliki's ability to succeed in his almost-impossible task. All the achievements in the political process in post-Saddam Iraq thus far, including writing a new constitution and holding a series of elections, have yet to dent the resistance to the foreign occupation. The security situation is still deteriorating, and the squabbling among the politicians, which has unfolded largely along sectarian and ethnic lines, has been widening the rifts in Iraqi society. Maliki's skills in a position of national leadership are untested; he has not previously had any formal role in the Iraqi government since the American invasion. Now those skills are in for a crucial test.