More than Mosul

Nuri al-Maliki's Plans for a Divided Iraq

A girl, who fled from the violence in Mosul, carries a case of water at a camp on the outskirts of Arbil in Iraq's Kurdistan region, June 12, 2014. Courtesy Reuters

Lately, Iraqi politics has been full of contradictions. On April 30, millions of voters -- including millions of Sunni Arabs -- selected mostly moderate candidates in the country’s third general election since its current constitution was adopted in 2005. Just weeks later, the local government in the largest Sunni city, Mosul, fell to a group of Syria-based radicals called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The Iraqi security forces barely resisted.

With the situation in Mosul rapidly deteriorating, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki seems to be considering two main alternatives: proceed with forming a new cabinet, which, to achieve a modicum of stability, would require him to include at least some of his political enemies, or consolidate his influence among Iraqi Shia, with little regard for what happens to the Sunni and Kurdish parts of the country. 

These two alternatives reflect two very different strategies, both of which Maliki has pursued over the last several years. Since he became prime minister in 2006, Maliki has sometimes tried to transcend the ethno-sectarianism that has characterized Iraqi politics since the 2003 U.S. invasion. By going after hardliners within his own Shia community, especially the Sadrists, Maliki tried to paint himself as a prime minister for all Iraqis. By insisting on a centralized energy policy, he broke down the Shia-Kurdish compact that had been so central to Iraqi politics in earlier years. He also alienated many fellow Shia in Basra and in the far south, who had hoped for greater energy autonomy. Finally, by standing firm against Kurdish claims to territories in the north, he won friends outside his own ethno-religious community, including the Sunni Turkmens, Sunni Arabs, and Christians living in those areas.

Maliki’s attempts to overcome Iraq’s divided politics were more enthusiastic between 2008 and 2010, when he discovered that he could increase his own power by challenging fellow Shia politicians and appealing to Iraqis more broadly. His plans fell by the wayside after the 2010 general election thanks, not least, to a

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