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The Maliki Government – What It Could Mean to Southern Iraq

By Reidar Visser (http://historiae.org)
23 May 2006

In the formation of the Maliki government the historically deprived areas of the lower Tigris have for once received some attention from Baghdad


Despite shared bonds of Shiite Islam, the far south of Iraq – Basra, Maysan and Dhi Qar – was involved in some of the strongest criticism of the government led by Ibrahim al-Jaafari of the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) in 2005. Is this internal friction within the Shiite camp likely to come to an end with the recent (20 May 2006) formation of a new central government under the leadership of another UIA figure, Nuri al-Maliki?

A recurrent motive for southern resentment against a central government dominated by co-religionists from other parts of Iraq has been a sense of “marginalisation” (tahmish). Government jobs, it was claimed, went to those Shiites who hailed from Baghdad and the holy cities of central Iraq – Najaf and Karbala. Development funds tended to end up in all other parts of the country. And even the ordinary democratic channel was blocked to the south, it was said. The January 2005 elections were carried out in a single national electoral constituency, and many southerners claimed that they were discriminated against in internal power struggles within the leading Shiite parties.

Statistics of ministers to the first post-2003 Iraqi governments confirm that there was some truth in these allegations, but also a degree of exaggeration. One example: two very senior UIA politicians who served as ministers, both from the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), are in fact of southern origin. But both Adil Abd al-Mahdi (born in Baghdad, but from a family of sayyids from Shatra in Dhi Qar province) and Bayan Jabr Sulagh (a Turkmen born in Maysan) may have spent too much of their careers in exile to be seen as “local” politicians first and foremost. Similarly, other representatives of the south in the interim and subsequent Allawi and Jaafari governments are individuals who returned to Iraq from abroad after 2003. They include Basrawis like Nuri al-Badran (interior minister in the interim government, resigned in early 2004) and Abd al-Falah Hasan Humadi al-Sudani (education minister under Jaafari), as well as Nasiriyya-born Qasim Dawud (national security adviser for Iyad Allawi from the autumn of 2004). Whilst the real significance of the cleavage between returnees and “domestic” Iraqis remains controversial, it is undeniable that a dichotomy of Iraqis classified as “the people of the outside” (ahl al-kharij) and the “sons of the interior” (abna’ al-dakhil) is increasingly becoming a commonplace feature of Iraqi political discourse.

Some southerners with more long-established local connections did accede to government office after 2003; prominent among them was Wail Abd al-Latif (from Sharish north of Basra), a judge who served as minister for the provinces in Allawi’s government. Others included Sami al-Muzaffar of Basra (of a Basra family of Shiite ulama) and Tahir al-Bakka (of Dhi Qar), but in both cases they held education ministries – posts that traditionally have been accorded limited prestige in Iraqi politics. (In the early days of the monarchy, this was the only portfolio the Shiites would get at all.) Nevertheless, at least one key government was allotted to someone from the south under Ibrahim al-Jaafari: the transportation ministry (involved in such grand projects as the projected Najaf airport and the upgrading of the port of Basra) was held by Salam al-Maliki of Basra, a Sadrist in his early 30s.

Southern resentment at continued marginalisation in Iraqi politics has translated into various forms of political action. At first, the principal manifestation was a demand for a special federal region limited to the three southern governorates, complemented with calls for greater local control of the vast oil resources in the area. From the summer of 2004 to the summer of 2005, both secularists and Shiite Islamists cooperated in a common southern federal bid along such lines, designed to capitalise on the provisions for federalism in the Transitional Administrative Law of 2004. But during the summer and autumn of 2005, tensions with the central authorities gradually assumed a cruder character. Led by the Fadila Party (which controls local government in Basra and which also has a strong following in the two neighbouring governorates) Basrawis engaged in strikes and open defiance of the central government, in matters involving for instance the oil industry, gasoline prices and relations with the British forces. Concurrently, the secularist adjunct of the local federalist movement became less vocal, and local minorities including Christians and Sunnis began voicing scepticism to the federal scheme – despite its non-sectarian surface appearance, which had been crafted in implicit opposition to the dominant Shiite political organisations of central Iraq. Basra politics grew more violent too, with an upsurge of targeted killings of politicians and high-ranking civil servants, and a rise in organised crime and oil smuggling activity.

For all its Byzantine convolutions and opaque aspects, the exacerbation of the security situation in Basra over the past months seems to be a reflection of these tensions, both between Baghdad and the southern periphery, and between northern and southern factions in the Shiite Islamist camp. At the same time this highlights many of the crucial issues involved in the formation of a new national government under Nuri al-Maliki. What has enabled the gradual advance of militia rule in Basra is no doubt related to how local parties use influence at the centre to pursue power games at the local level. The Fadila Party, by way of example, were until recently in control of the oil ministry, and although the southerners would complain that the ministers within their own party all came from the north, they themselves reportedly exploited the connection to equip paramilitary squads who in turn were employed as a protection force for the Basra oil fields – but who were also enlisted for more sinister purposes. Their chief antagonist in Basra, the local adherents of SCIRI, have for their part had privileged access to the ministry of interior (controlled by SCIRI centrally) and have thus been in a position to bolster their position within the local police force in Basra. As for the local Sadrists, they have a militia of their own, and have on several occasions demonstrated a willingness to act independently of their supposed leader in Najaf, Muqtada al-Sadr. Lately the Sadrists have gone on to make allegations that a fourth player in the local power struggles – the Iraqi army – has been infiltrated by “Saddamist” elements; an accusation that may seem exaggerated but one that easily finds an audience in a setting where some politicians try to exploit sectarianism and choose to accentuate the “Sunni” leadership of the ministry of defence.

In short, by May 2006, the Basra situation served as an indicator of a central government that was severely divided, colonised by party factions who were exploiting it purely for the sake of their own aggrandisement. What had one year earlier been a democratic contest between different visions for how Basra should relate to the rest of Iraq had now apparently degenerated into a raw power struggle between factions competing for local influence. Will Maliki be able to rectify this? Will he offer the south a chance to articulate its regionalist ambitions within a democratic framework, or, alternatively, will he, by virtue of delivering governmental performance, convince the southerners that the central government and a unitary state framework need not be so unacceptable after all? (One might perhaps also ask whether Maliki will himself remain loyal to the Iraqi nationalist traditions of the Daawa Party, rather than embracing the sectarian scheme for a greater Shiite federal entity from Basra to Baghdad which is currently being propagated by SCIRI.)

Two aspects of Maliki’s government line-up stand out in this regard. The first is some remarkable exclusions. Most important is the marginalisation of the Fadila Party, which was squeezed out of the contest for the oil ministry on which its members had so high hopes – and who subsequently withdrew from the government negotiations. In isolation, this factor could strengthen southern discontent, because the Fadila Party has played such a prominent role in regionalist propaganda over the past year, and because the demand for an oil minister to be recruited from the “oil region” has recurred – to no avail – ever since 2004. With access to the oil ministry as a source for spoils now blocked, the Fadila will likely aim to consolidate their control over the structure currently remaining in their hands – the Basra governorate – and intensify their work to achieve a special federal status, either alone or with the two neighbouring governorates. Similarly, the non-appearance of secularist Basra leader Wail Abd al-Latif in the final list of ministers is remarkable; for weeks he had been touted as a prominent ministerial candidate. Whereas infighting within the Iraqi National List of Iyad Allawi may have had something to do with this, media also reported a decisive “no” from the United Iraqi Alliance with regard to Abd al-Latif’s candidature – in which case this would constitute a second major snub to a leader of southern regionalist sentiment. Abd al-Latif had been involved in the first initiatives for a federal status for Basra, but had inclined towards a language of compromise in questions related to the management of oil revenue.(1)

But there are also moves in the opposite direction, towards greater inclusion. Abd al-Falah al-Sudani, of the Daawa in Basra,(2) continues his ministerial career, this time in the vital trade ministry. During the early days of the monarchy this portfolio was known as a “Basra ministry”; today Sudani’s appointment resonates well with Basra’s proud mercantile traditions. Independent UIA member Safa al-Din al-Safi also continues in government, but remains in his old job as minister of state for the national assembly – undeniably one of the more contrived portfolios in a generally over-sized cabinet (there are also posts for “national dialogue” and “civil society”). Much the same can be said of two other “southern” appointments, tribal leader Muhammad al-Uraybi, of the secular Iraqi National List and from Maysan, and Hasan al-Sari of Hizballah – a party with strong roots in the marshlands north of Basra. Both have been made ministers without portfolio. And if information about the party affiliation of Adil al-Asadi (minister for civil society, reportedly a member of a faction of the small Islamic Action Organisation) is indeed correct, this could be another appointment that perhaps will be taken note of in the south: although they are an emphatically all-Iraqi party (their base is in Karbala where they have historical ties to the Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi al-Mudarrisi), this Shiite Islamist party which fought the 2005 elections outside the UIA has one of its strongest support bases in Basra and the two neighbouring governorates.

One possible interpretation of all of this is that the Maliki government is reaching out for partners in the south who are not associated very strongly with the local regionalist trend. The choice of two tribal non-Sadrist ministers with connections to the Maysan area (Sari and Uraybi) stands out in this respect. Sadrists are in control of local government in Maysan and have frequently criticised the central government; the rather sudden promotion of two comparatively independent figures from this historically deprived region is quite conspicuous. Appointments of ministers of state without portfolio are by their very nature often suspect and could suggest ulterior motives that more than anything have to do with building power bases – in this case in a contested periphery, perhaps as a counterweight to Sadrist politicians who have often acted independently of those Sadrist leaders in central Iraq who are now Maliki’s coalition partners. The exclusion of the Fadila Party and other UIA individuals associated with the pro-southern current points in the same direction.

Will the alternative be a genuinely national direction of policy, and if so, will it succeed? So far, there is no evidence of Maliki backtracking from his party’s long-standing commitment to Iraq’s national unity and territorial integrity, or from the traditional Daawa scepticism towards potentially centrifugal forces. And in the south, despite all the talk of regionalism on the rise, such a policy could still have the power to succeed. Many southerners may be perfectly prepared to work within an Iraqi nationalist framework (and to abandon the regionalist frame of mind in assessments of the composition of the new team of ministers) as long as they feel that they are taken seriously by the centre. If the central government acts in a truly national fashion (i.e. distributing services and investments equitably, bringing an end to the dreaded militia rule in Basra etc.) many in the south may respond by forgoing or at least postponing their plans for a federal mini-state in return. Indeed, several of the southern demands appear to be eminently negotiable: southern under-representation in government bureaucracy and in Iraqi diplomatic missions abroad could be remedied, and southern demands for regional oil quotas could be addressed in a “softer” manner through long-term development funds set aside to address regional under-development – perhaps with some sort of international involvement in the assessment procedures, to address southern concerns about what is seen as the omnipresent and perennial problem of “northern” (whether Baghdad or Najaf) dominance. A steady flow of oil will not extinguish southern grievances but may go a great way towards alleviating them.

In order to succeed with such a policy, the Maliki government must manage to overcome the narrow party interest of the participants in the coalition effort. It must show that this is a synergic enterprise, rather than simply an extension of the existing spoils system that would allow a few privileged elites of the Sunni Arab community to join the club of politicians feasting on state resources. And the international community, who in early 2006 rather abruptly began calling for the urgent formation of a technocratic government, should not revert to past practices of partisan meddling in Iraqi politics. Those countries who have forces in Iraq – primarily the United States and the United Kingdom – should focus on the big issues of security and stability, instead of pursuing more narrow agendas inspired by their own preferences with regard to what particular kind of economic model should be adopted in the new Iraq, or unrealistic dreams about importing a carbon copy of liberal democracy as per the Western pattern to Baghdad.

Husayn al-Shahristani, the new oil minister and an independent UIA technocrat from Karbala with a reputation for personal integrity and strong anti-corruption ideals, could be a symbol of a new beginning for Iraq. He may well succeed for instance in bringing an end to the ongoing exploitation of oil ministry property in Basra for petty party purposes. Shahristani is joined in the new government by many ex-ministers and bureaucrats who share his potential for becoming a vanguard of professionalisation; they include figures like Hushyar Zibari (foreign affairs), Hashim al-Shibli (justice), Karim Wahid (electricity) and Abd al-Latif Rashid (water). In another healthy sign, independents make up a considerable proportion of the new ministers; among the ministers nominated by the UIA they form the single largest group.(3) But more than this will be needed in the south, where, after all, the warring local factions also accuse each other of misusing the resources and infrastructure of the ministry of interior and the ministry of defence. Significantly, the new chiefs for those two key ministries have yet to be named; they are vacancies that testify to the enormity of the challenge ahead for Nuri al-Maliki as he initiates work with one of the most important governments in the history of Iraq.


1) The relationship between the independent-minded Sadrists of the far south and the new government remains unclear. Salam al-Maliki, the Basra Sadrist minister in the Jaafari government, was not re-nominated; it is not yet clear whether any of the incoming Sadrist ministers have ties to the south of a comparable calibre.

2) Sudani has been reported as a member of the Tanzim al-Iraq branch of the Daawa, but some sources contradict this and describe him as a member of Jaafari’s main branch. At least a couple of cases of deputies switching party allegiances within the UIA have definitely taken place during 2006.

3) Information on this remains somewhat sketchy but initial counts suggest that among the ministers nominated by UIA, there are around 8 who are independents or not affiliated with any of the major coalition parties (although at least two have been included apparently also because of their links to the Turkmen and the Fayli Kurd communities respectively), 4 Sadrists (including the ministers for health and transportation), 3 from SCIRI (including finance and municipalities) and 3 from the combined Daawa factions (education and trade, in addition to the premiership held by Nuri al-Maliki).

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