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If the term “failing upward” had a living, breathing manifestation, it would be former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He was an obscure figure among the Iraqi opposition before the U.S. invasion in 2003, and his irrelevance was key in his selection to the premiership to replace Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who was considered more ideological. By 2010, he was dabbling in toxic narratives, using historic precedents with intentional sectarian undertones merged with populism to transform the political predicament in Iraq into an ideological one.
The United States still loved him, and so did Iran’s Gen. Qassim Soleimani. The archenemies, then in the earliest stages of secretive nuclear deal talks, seemed to agree that Iraq would be better off with Maliki remaining at the helm.
But during his 2010-2014 second term, Iraq was riddled with corruption scandals, military setbacks, abuses and the killing of civilians. It was also well on its way to the eventual collapse of the security apparatus that led to losing one third of Iraq’s territory to the Islamic State group.
Nouri al-Maliki was replaced but not held accountable. He continued playing a role behind the scenes, with high hopes of returning to power following a decent performance in the October 2021 general elections.
But a series of leaked audio recordings could potentially dash all his hopes, including his political career.
Virginia-based blogger and activist Ali al-Fadhel began leaking parts of an alleged audio recording of Maliki during a conversation with two militiamen. The authenticity of the audio has been verified by Tech4Peace, a reputable fact-checking organization, despite repeated denials by Maliki’s team.
To summarize, the audio includes a scathing attack on Muqtada al-Sadr, the controversial cleric and spiritual leader to millions of Iraqi Shiites, who was accused of treachery, conspiracy and corruption. “Shiism will be lost”, warned Maliki, if Sadr were to become the country’s leader. He described Sadr as brutish and ignorant, and accused him and his followers of cowardice. And he didn’t stop there. Maliki accused the Popular Mobilization Forces, al-Hashd al-Shaabi, of being a “nation of cowards.” He spared Qais al-Khazali, the infamous leader of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, some of his wrath but acknowledged that “Asaib, Kataeb are all controlled by Iran.” (Kataeb Imam Ali is another militia.)
Maliki warned of a “Baathist infiltration” in high-level government posts under various parties and political blocs (Sunnis, of course) and of a conspiracy brokered by the U.K. to remove Shiites from power and reinstall Sunnis.
What the audio reveals is a political class fractured beyond repair, driven by power-obsessed individuals who cling to power for a modicum of relevance. “Iraq” itself is reduced to a background utterance lost among more potent words like “sect” and “marjiyah” (religious authority).
For all his loud proclamations of “sovereignty,” Maliki and his guests speak of Iran as the de facto decision maker. The recordings also show Maliki as a paranoid charlatan who cannot comprehend an Iraq operating outside his incredibly narrow sectarian worldviews. The slightest signs of agreement among Iraq’s different ethnic and religious groups where the Sunni minority are not submissive appear to befuddle him. Baathist and Sunni become interchangeable, and he sees a Sunni takeover and conspiracy in everything. “All Sunnis are awful,” he says before backtracking to “well, most are.”.His guests agree and add, “They are all awful, but we say some are good.”
The most damning revelation was how eager and willing Maliki is for war. He repeatedly states that the “next stage is war.” He adds that he has nothing to fear because he can rely on his tribe “Banu Malik” for protection, but he needs this inevitable war to defend “the sect.” He will not fight this war. The men of his family will not fight this war. The poorest and most unfortunate will, and their lives are of little concern to him judging by his casual tone when discussing the impending military confrontation, which apparently will be both intra- and cross-sectarian. When Maliki dabbled in sectarian rhetoric in 2010-2014, which included reducing Iraq’s problems to an extension of a seventh-century sectarian civil war, the accepted narrative in Washington and London’s policy circles was that Sunnis, no longer in power, are the main problem. Maliki’s sectarianism was justified as targeting the growing jihadist presence in western Iraq. His new comments show him as a sectarian politician who continues to “other” Sunnis whether there is a jihadist threat or not.
As of July 22, Ali Fadhel had released six audio segments, each averaging roughly three minutes in length. At this stage in the scandal, it is hard to discern the real effect on Maliki’s political life. The reason and timing of the leaks are a mystery. Sadr advised Maliki to “return to God” and “retire from politics while some of his supporters have taken to the streets to protest.” His supporters accuse Iran or the U.K. of leaking and fabricating the recordings because Maliki “does not answer to any of them.” The recordings are the No. 1 topic in Iraq today, even if most Iraqi experts have refrained from commenting on the issue. One comment from a young Iraqi stuck with me the most: “This will only lead to war, and after we all die the same politicians will reconcile and split the spoils of war.” That is a legitimate concern from Iraqis who understand that there are no decent players in the country, and things can always get worse.
Listening to the audio was revelatory and shocking. How can a man who has consistently failed in all his leadership tasks continue to hold on to the same ideas and rhetoric from a decade earlier? In 2011, Maliki’s followers began referring to him as “this era’s Mukhtar,” invoking the controversial eighth-century historical figure al-Mukhtar al-Thaqafi, who allegedly avenged the martyrdom of the revered Imam Hussein by slaughtering all those who had a role in his death. For many Iraqis, the deliberate incitement at the popular level was clear. The impact of his words became gradually evident in the aggressive behavior and violations committed by many army officers in places like Mosul and Anbar. Back then, and despite all the warning signs, he had support from the U.S.
Today, America has by far less influence than it had in 2010. Despite the accusations, the U.K. is most likely too occupied with its internal politics to conspire against Maliki and re-create a Sunni Iraqi leadership. In the absence of support, can Maliki survive this upheaval? He has survived worse, and the more Iraq’s problems grow, the better his chances of survival.