Top 10 Mistakes of former Iraq PM Nouri al-Maliki (That Ruined his Country)

By Juan Cole

Now that Nouri al-Maliki has resigned as prime minister, it is worth looking at the way his two terms as prime minister (2006-2010, 2010-2014) shaped Iraq. Did his policies help create the country’s current impasse?

1. Al-Maliki was so partisan in 2006 when he first came to power that he denied that Shiite militias were a security problem. When Gen. David Petraeus came to him in late 2006 with a plan to disarm the Sunni and Shiite militias in Baghdad, al-Maliki insisted that he begin with the Sunni armed groups. The US acquiesced, but as a result, the Shiite militias came into disarmed Sunni neighborhoods at night when the Americans weren’t looking, and ethnically cleansed them. Baghdad went from some 45% Sunni in 2003 to only 25% Sunni by the end of 2007. Al-Maliki’s sectarianism led to the transformation of Baghdad into a largely Shiite city.

2. Gen. Petraeus and others cultivated Sunnis who were alarmed at the rise of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (the predecessor of today’s so-called “Islamic State”), and created “Awakening Councils” of armed Sunnis willing to fight the extremists. Al-Maliki opposed this program and had shouting matches with Petraeus over it, fearing that the armed Sunnis would become a problem for his Shiite government after the defeat of al-Qaeda. (In fact, if only al-Maliki could get the Awakening Councils back now, he’d be very lucky). As the American forces withdrew from a combat role in 2009, US generals asked al-Maliki to hire the some 100,000 Sunni Awakening Council fighters. They could have been integrated into the police in cities like Mosul or Fallujah. Al-Maliki took about 17,000 of them, but left the other 83,000 twisting in the wind, without any stipends or pensions. Because they had fought al-Qaeda, they were targeted by the terrorists for reprisals and some were killed. In some instances al-Maliki actually prosecuted some Awakening Council fighters for anti-government activities they had engaged in before they joined the Council. Figure each of the 83,000 had a circle of 20 close relatives and friends. That was 1.6 million Sunni Arabs (out of some 5 million at the time) that al-Maliki alienated.

3. Although al-Maliki’s campaign in Basra against the Mahdi Army in spring of 2008 was a victory for the new Iraqi army, it only succeeded because the Shiite, pro-Iranian Badr Corps joined in on the side of the army, and because of American close air support. Al-Maliki is alleged in the aftermath to have brought thousands of Badr Corps fighters into the army, beginning a process of sectarianizing it. Ultimately, al-Maliki’s army from all accounts ended up being largely Shiite, which is one reason they were so unwelcome in mostly Sunni Arab Mosul (a city of 2 million) and that the Mosulis allied with the “Islamic State” against al-Maliki.

4. Al-Maliki allegedly kept the military weak for fear that a powerful officer might try to make a coup against him.

5. Al-Maliki played favorites with the Shiites of the south, his power base, and neglected to provide the Sunni Arab cities with key services, including enough electricity.

6. In late 2011, Al-Maliki abruptly declared his Sunni vice president, Tareq al-Hashimi, a terrorist, without any due process. He alienated a lot of Sunnis with this action.

7. Al-Maliki’s budgets were bloated and did not pay enough attention to investment, creating jobs, supporting local industry, or diversifying the economy away from its almost complete dependence on oil.

8. In 2010 when Sunnis enthusiastically joined the political process and voted in droves for the Iraqiya Party, al-Maliki froze it out of power in favor of a Shiite coalition put together under Iranian pressure (Iran is a Shiite state). The Sunnis were angry that they had the largest party in parliament but came away with nothing to show for it.

9. When the Arab Spring broke out in early 2011 and had its echoes in Iraq, with youth demonstrations against al-Maliki’s authoritarian ways among both Sunnis and Shiites, al-Maliki briefly pledged not to seek a third term as prime minister. (Arab Spring youth were particularly incensed by the power and prerogatives of presidents for life and their privileged children, who were being groomed to take over after them). Al-Maliki quickly reneged on his pledge and only on Thursday did he finally resign, having driven Sunnis into the arms of the “Islamic State.”

10. In winter-spring 2013 when Arab Spring-type demonstrations were mounted by the Sunnis in places like Falluja and Hawija in the Sunni Arab west and north, al-Maliki declared them terrorists and sent in military troops and helicopter gunships to brutally suppress the protests. Sunni Arabs, having been informed that they would be a perpetual defeated minority in parliament were now given the idea that even peaceable assembly would be denied to them as a political tactic. Al-Maliki’s policies gave them no incentive to remain within the system. In the end they allied with the al-Qaeda offshoot, the so-called “Islamic State.” Al-Maliki didn’t so much lose the Sunni Arabs as drive them into the arms of IS with systematic policies of marginalization.

Al-Maliki’s successor needs to make the al-Da’wa Party a party of pan-Islam and try to attract Sunnis into it (this happened in the 1960s)– or better yet needs to found a Labor Party that could unite Iraqis across ethnicity and sect. This Shiite rule business can’t hope to put Iraq back together.


Related video:

Reuters: “Iraq’s Maliki steps aside as PM, backs replacement”

12 Responses

  1. Nice topic, but i respectfully disagree with a lot of the points raised in this article. I think there is an over emphasis on the part that the sunnis played in Maliki’s demise. Had the shiites stuck with Maliki, he would still be in power.

    Maliki’s biggest mistakes in my opinion are:
    1. Bringing the Baathists back into Government institutions, thus alienating the Shiite bureaucracy.
    2. Turned a blind eye to the ISIS advance towards Mosul, which destroyed all confidence in him.
    3. Ignored Grand Ayatollah Sistanis instructions. If you alienate your power base, you’re left with nothing.
    4. Giving sensitive Government to his relatives and in effect trying to create his own dynasty.

    Maliki’s strategic goal was to centralise power after the collapse of the state in 2003. All Dawa members worked towards that goal, but Maliki’s approach/technique cost him his job. He made too many enemies.

  2. #11.. The US has no business interfering in long held religious and tribal politics in Iraq. Obviously they are not interested in becoming the America of the middle east. Let them deal with their problems in their own fashion.

    Here is a brave journalist from Ireland doing what no American reporters would do….question GW Bush on the insanity of his policies. At just over two minutes Bush claims Iraq will be better off.
    link to

  3. Nauman Sadiq

    . A divisive figure, but Maliki is being blamed for #ISIS’ success, when in fact it was a spillover of Syrian war in #Iraq.

  4. Yes, Maliki had his faults. But let’s not overlook the importance of the Sunnis’ fall from their longstanding position of power and privilege, dating back centuries. They did not take that well. They were not about to cooperate with Maliki. Far from it. They were determined to subvert him. And they succeeded.

    There is plenty of blame to be shared here. And assigning Maliki as the problem is a gross oversimplification and does little to enlighten readers on the magnitude of the problem that the former Iraq had.

  5. In a recent widely cited Atlantic interview Clinton said: “[ISIS] were often armed in an indiscriminate way by other forces and we had no skin in the game that really enabled us to prevent this indiscriminate arming.” link to

    However, ousted Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki said “Intelligence apparatuses [are] behind the sectarian strife in the region.” link to This is indicative of ongoing CIA and MI6 involvement and fostering of ISIS (UK/US special forces are now overtly there link to and consequently complicity in the current mass humanitarian crisis in Syria/Iraq; with U.S. humanitarian airdrops over Mt. Sinjar being nothing but a distractive sop to cover their responsibility in the mass uprooting of hundreds of thousands from the local population in a continuing strategic ploy to wipe the Iraq slate clean and further the creation of a “New Middle East” characterized by human/social uprootedness and helplessness and corporate/hegemonic emplacement, extraction, and exploitation–that is, a new inhuman order in the region devoid of all substantive logic except the imperio-capitalist. (i.e. radical “free” market statism) link to link to

    • Hillary Clinton might or might not be right about arming moderate Syrian rebels. No one knows how it would have turned out, but ISIS being able to use Syria as a base and expanding into Iraq was the worse case scenario come true.

  6. Juan,

    Authoritarian leaders don’t tend step down with out violence. Considering he spent 24 years in exile by Saddam Hossein’s anti-Shia government I think he had reason to be suspicious of armed Sunni militias.

  7. All this deep and knowledgeadle talk about Big Figures in the Great Game, and whole treatises on the nitty-gritty of Game of Thrones drama-at-the-top. This selfish group or that, who’s victim and who’s victor. Not a word about any kind of game or mindset or investment or policies that might avert the predation and horror that cost so much, waste so much, lead only to less of everything for most of us and more of the same, and just MORE, for a very few. And all the stuff the poses that be know how to do just turns more farmers and shopkeepers and bakers into the ISIS-gunmen kind of butchers that G_d help us seem to be the end point of that vaunted leap to “civilization” that apparently started where it might start to end, right there in Messypotamia…

    What a proud species we are.

  8. Juan Cole, suggested the blasts may have been a message from the Damascus-based insurgency leaders following the prime minister’s talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad.
    They are letting al-Maliki know that they will not allow themselves to be extradited and go to the gallows like Saddam Hussein without a fight, and that they can make al-Maliki’s life miserable,
    The solution is for the Obama administration to play hard ball with al-Maliki in getting him to pursue national reconciliation

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