Sources say the head of the ruling State of Law list has told aides he would rather work from behind the scenes
Maliki signals he is not interested in becoming Iraqi prime minister again
Former Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al Maliki is no longer interested in regaining the post, The National has learned, strengthening his rival Haider Al Abadi's prospects of winning a second term.
Mr Al Maliki heads the ruling State of Law coalition's list for the May election, while Mr Al Abadi heads the now weakened but still significant Victory Coalition. Both men are members of the Dawa party.
Although Mr Al Maliki would be the prime ministerial candidate should State of Law win the coming election, he has told close aides that he has does not want the job, a senior Dawa member close to the former prime minister and another senior political figure close to the government have told The National.
Both sources say Mr Al Maliki has repeatedly said in private conversations that he does not want to be prime minister again and that he is only heading the State of Law list to give it the best chance in the elections. “He wants to stay in the shadows, to be powerful, but out of scrutiny,” said the Dawa party member.
Mr Al Maliki was forced out of office in disgrace in 2014 following the fall of Mosul to ISIL. Mr Al Abadi replaced him, and the two have been bitter rivals since.
Mr Al Abadi is widely considered a certainty for re-election following the military defeat of ISIL and the federal government’s recapture of Kirkuk from Kurdish forces, although his prospects were set back by an attempt at a grand political alliance, through his Victory Coalition, that he hoped would deliver the decisive support of the Shiite bloc.
Criticism began to mount after Mr Al Abadi, who has largely preached a non-sectarian vision of Iraq, entered into an electoral pact last month with some of Iraq’s most controversial Shiite militias. The so-called Victory Coalition saw Mr Al Abadi aligning with, among others, the Badr Organisation and Asaib Ahl Al Haq — both widely seen as sectarian, and Iran’s strongest allies in Iraq.
The coalition began to falter within 48 hours as discussions touched on the conferring of ministerial positions. Mr Al Abadi refused to make any guarantees to Badr, so they pulled out, the Dawa party source told The National.
After more withdrawals, the Victory Coalition now is substantially smaller than the grand alliance Mr Al Abadi thought he had managed to assemble.
The source said the short-lived grand coalition attempt was a successful ploy by Qassem Suleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's overseas arm, to neutralise Mr Al Abadi’s ability to criticise political groupings linked to the Hashed Al Shaabi, the umbrella organisation of mostly Iran-backed Shiite militias mobilised to fight ISIL. “They never planned to actually run together, it was always a ruse by Suleimani to neutralise Al Abadi’s potential lines of attack," the Dawa member said.
The political figure close to the government said Mr Al Abadi had been convinced the grand coalition would ensure a second term.
“He was given indications by the Iranians and others that it would more or less secure the Shia bloc — the Islamists within the Shia, which means that it was his to lose. That was his intention. He was enticed — it was entrapment."
However, it is a setback Mr Al Abadi can overcome, he said.
“It dented his character, in the sense it reflected to the West and to certain Iraqis that all politicians are opportunist. So it has done damage, but has it permanently or irreparably damaged him? I don’t think so.”
With such a fragmented field, the next government will likely be built through coalitions and post-election deals, and Mr Al Abadi remains best placed to make these deals. The most significant groups in this regard are the Sadrists, led by firebrand nationalist cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, who is weary of Iran, and the Hikmah party led by Ammar Al Hakim, another cleric.
“It’s still his to lose, the alternative candidates are not clear," said the political figure.
“Let’s say for argument's sake that Hikmah or the Sadrists want to play a part in the government’s formation, they are unlikely to side with the Hashed, they may not side with Maliki, their natural alliance is with Abadi."
Lukman Faily, Iraq’s former ambassador to the US and a former Dawa party member, told The National that pre-election coalitions should not be taken as an indication of the composition of the next government. "Think of it as everybody organising themselves for the election day, not for government formation. It’s more short-term, specific-goal orientated, not what you might call a medium to long-term strategic coalition.”
The source close to Mr Al Maliki said that despite not vying for the top job, the former prime minister still felt he had an important role to play in the election. “Maliki is still a strong man for many Iraqi Shia. He will leverage this reputation in the elections," he said.
As the political figure close to government put it, "Maliki is the list” when it comes to the State of Law coalition.
The Dawa source added that Mr Al Maliki may have already appointed a successor in Tariq Najm, his influential and shadowy chief of staff. Mr Najm was linked to the prime minister’s post in 2014 before Mr Al Abadi ascended to the office.