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Maliki's strength grows with the help of a politicised army

With increasing control over the Iraqi army, Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki has the means to dominate his main political rivals.

Leading up to the US withdrawal from Iraq at the end of 2011, much debate focused on the technical ability of the Iraqi army to secure their country. But intentionally or not, the United States left the Iraqi army in the hands of the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki. And in doing so, provided him an asset in his efforts to consolidate leadership over Iraq and defeat his main political rival, the Iraqiya coalition.

The decision to issue an arrest warrant for Iraqiya member and Vice President Tariq Al Hashimi is a recent example of this ongoing internal struggle for power. But it won't end there.

Over the past seven years, the 14 army divisions have been trained to counter the insurgency within Iraq's borders. The army has developed as an internal security force with its divisions branching out over Iraq's provinces.

Today the Iraqi army is able to permeate across the country. Control over the army and Ministry of Defence are Mr Al Maliki's keys to unlocking access to Iraq.

Through the Ministry of Defence, the prime minister has taken the reins of the army by appointing loyal officers as commanders of key divisions, and operating through army divisions across the country to exercise his national control. Although army officers do not have any official role in Iraqi politics, they are now at the forefront as executors of political agendas.

An Al Maliki-affiliated leadership of army officers has been taking root over the last several years. In a process that started in 2007 and peaked this year, the prime minister surrounded himself with a circle of former army officers. In return for their loyalty, these officers regained the ranks they had once lost under US de-Baathification policies, and were assigned key posts within the army divisions.

The army has filled in gaps that the prime minister's political reach did not cover. Throughout 2011, entire divisions were deployed in the northern provinces where Iraqiya has its stronghold: Anbar, Salahuddin, Ninewa and Diyala. Security has deteriorated in these provinces. And the more security deteriorated, the more the army could increase its presence, widening its control over each of these provinces.

Iraqiya's security and political leadership has also been crippled by a series of assassinations that have targeted key officials. Provincial officials have had to replace their police chiefs according to the instructions of the Ministry of Interior. This process reached a climax in October, when high-ranking army officers in these provinces were arrested for their alleged affiliation with terrorist networks and Baathism.

Parliament is already proving ineffective at preventing the prime minister's consolidation of military and political power. Iraqiya's recent decision to boycott the Council of Ministers and Parliament may backfire. In spite of winning the majority of seats in the 2010 elections, Iraqiya is now left with no anchor in the provinces and no unity in Baghdad.

Instead, Mr Al Maliki may use Parliament to withdraw confidence from Iraqiya's members or co-opt some to join his circles. White Iraqiya Bloc - a group that split last March from the main bloc - has already expressed support for Mr Al Maliki's government after Iraqiya withdrew.

The constitution has also proven weak. Left without representation and authority, Salahuddin and Diyala Provinces resorted to Article 119 of the constitution, and declared their economic and administrative autonomy from Baghdad.

The declarations, however, are far from being approved in Baghdad; instead, the prime minister is envisaging a reform of the constitution which may reduce the power of the provinces and recast Iraq's institutional framework in his favour.

As it stands, only the Kurdish alliance has the potential to counter the prime minister's expansionist policies, maintaining key positions within the Iraqi army and police leadership, as well as their own Peshmerga forces.

The Kurdish parties may also benefit from mediating between Mr Al Maliki and Iraqiya, taking concessions from both sides and increasing the presence of their affiliated security forces over portions of the northern governorates of which they have long claimed ownership.

In this struggle conducted via the security forces, the achievement of security remains dependent upon agreements between Mr Al Maliki and his remaining opponents. This balance is being tested; a series of deadly explosions in Baghdad in recent days have raised the spectre of renewed sectarian fighting.

Building up the technical capacity of the security forces will not help redirect an army that operates within a weak institutional framework. The Iraqi army has taken a dangerous turn, becoming subservient to a fierce political climate rather than becoming an institution that works to maintain security across the whole of Iraq.

The year 2011 saw Mr Al Maliki consolidate his power as Iraq's most prominent leader. And as his control of the Iraqi military strengthens, 2012 could even bring him to the forefront of the regional scene.


Maria Fantappie is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

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