Cablegate: Pm Maliki: Strengthened Center or Emerging

DE RUEHGB #0379/01 0441140
O 131140Z FEB 09



E.O. 12958: DECL: 02/12/2019

Classified by Ambassador Ryan Crocker for reasons 1.4 (b) and

Summary and Introduction

1. (C) With the strong performance of the Da'wa Party in the
January 31 provincial council elections, Prime Minister
Maliki will claim a public mandate. While many media
analyses have tended to overstate this case (as Maliki won no
more than 38 percent in two provinces, and less elsewhere) it
is clear that the elections mark a significant improvement in
the Prime Minister's political fortunes, and that Da'wa can
legitimately claim to have displaced the Islamic Supreme
Council of Iraq (ISCI) as the country's preeminent Shi'a
political party. During his first two years in office,
Maliki was broadly assailed by critics as a weak and
ineffectual prime minister, ill-equipped by background and
experience to govern an increasingly violent Iraq and
incapable of imposing order on a chaotic GOI to confront the
country's myriad challenges. Now, at the start of 2009, with
an increasingly stable (if still violent and volatile) Iraq,
Maliki is assailed by those same critics -- leading Sunni and
Kurdish politicians, as well as other Shi'a coalition
partners -- as an aspiring strongman bent on imposing a
classic Arab autocracy on Iraq.

2. (C) Maliki's personality and way of conducting business
has contributed to the present accusations of an emerging
"new Saddam." While his political foes are quite open about
their desire to see him ousted (providing more than adequate
reason for paranoia on the PM's part), Maliki is a product of
his Da'wa secret cell experience and tends to view everyone
and everything with instinctive suspicion. This worldview is
fed by his small and closed circle of Da'wa advisors. In
terms of governance and security, Maliki has moved in an
accelerated manner following his direction of government
efforts in spring/summer of 2008 to quell Sadrist challenges
in Basra and elsewhere to reestablish a strong Baghdad
center. While the ends are positive -- enhanced national
security and stability are welcome-- the means are being
subjected to increasing question. The concentration of
authority in Maliki's Office of the Commander in Chief
(OCINC), the establishment of an elite security force - with
its own judges and detention facilities - that reports
directly to the PM, the creation of a security force command
that short-circuits provincial authority, a willingness in
some cases to use strong-arm tactics against political
adversaries, and patronage networks to co-opt others all
follow a very familiar pattern of Arab world leadership.

3. (C) That said, Nouri Al-Maliki is no Saddam Hussein. He
shares neither Saddam's brutality nor his penchant for
international military adventurism. Moreover, while Maliki's
thinking and actions are undoubtedly informed by the Shi'a
experience, he himself sees his conduct as national rather
than sectarian-inspired. His nationalism is very much at
issue in his relations with Iran. Having fled from Iran to
Syria during the Saddam era to avoid falling under Tehran's
sway (as he believes occurred with Shi'a arch-rival ISCI),
Maliki's suspicious outlook includes a dark assessment of
Iran's ambitions toward Iraq.

4. (C) A key question posed by Maliki's evolving hold on
levers of political and security power is whether the PM is
becoming a non-democratic dictator bent on subordinating all
authority to his hand or whether Maliki is attempting to
rebalance political and security authority back to the center
Qrebalance political and security authority back to the center
after five-plus years of intended and unintended dispersal to
(and in some cases seizure by) actors and power structures
outside Baghdad. We believe the answer lies closer to the
latter than the former. This process will likely come into
sharper focus with the seating of the newly-elected
provincial councils and implementation of the provincial
powers law (which grants significant new power to the
provinces). And the PM's efforts will be met with resistance
by those, such as the Kurds and Maliki's Shi'a rivals, who
would argue that the post-Saddam national consensus (and
indeed the Iraqi constitution) requires substantial devolved
power to the provinces and regions.

5. (C) While responsibility for the lack of political
consensus is broadly shared among Iraq's leaders from all
groups, the PM needs to set the tone. Here, Maliki has shown
that he is either unwilling or unable to take the lead in the
give-and-take needed to build broad consensus for the
Government's policies among competing power blocs.
Furthermore, the Prime Minister has appeared willing to
confront his adversaries with force, as illustrated by the
near-confrontation between the Iraqi Army and Peshmerga in
northern Diyala province last September. Working within this
context, the U.S. should continue to emphasize support for
Iraqi institutions over individuals as our bilateral
relationship matures, and must maintain a strong focus on
keeping Iraq's main groups committed to a peaceful,
negotiated, process to resolve contentious "national vision"
issues such as power-sharing, disputed borders, the
appropriate division of power between the central and
provincial/regional governments, hydrocarbons, and security.
End summary and introduction.

Winter of Discontent

6. (C) First seen as weak, ineffective, and ill-informed
about the political and security structures put in place
since Saddam's fall (Maliki was not a participant in the
governing bodies set up during the CPA), Prime Minister
Maliki was by the fall of 2008 being widely criticized - by
leaders of the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) and other Sunni
politicians, by the Kurdish political leadership, and by
fellow Shi'a from outside Maliki's Da'wa Party -- as
autocratic and excessively ambitious, with the long-term aim
of becoming a new strong man dictator. The "political reform
resolution," passed by parliament in conjunction with its
approval of the U.S.-Iraq Security Agreement and Strategic
Framework Agreement on November 27, 2008 (reftel), amounted
to a manifesto of grievances against the Prime Minister that
had been growing among his coalition partners, and the
opposition, throughout the year.

7. (U) The document urged the Maliki Government to adhere to
the Constitution, to commit to a democratic federal system,
to share power with the legislature, to professionalize and
depoliticize the security forces, to guarantee a free
judiciary, disband "unconstitutional structures" within the
government, and release prisoners eligible for amnesty or
held without due process, among other demands.

Maliki's (Small) Circle

8. (C) A common complaint about Maliki is his failure to
consult with leaders of other power blocs and his excessive
reliance on a small inner circle for advice. These habits
certainly stem from Maliki's background, which includes more
than two decades as an operative of the Islamic Da'wa Party,
which conducted clandestine activities, including
assassination attempts against Saddam and senior regime
officials, during the 1970s and 80s. (Saddam's intelligence
service, for good measure, targeted Da'wa operatives for
assassination abroad.)

9. (C) Maliki first joined Da'wa as a student at Baghdad
University in the 1960s. His ties to the group forced him to
flee Iraq in 1979, and live in exile first in Iran, then in
Syria, where he represented the party until Saddam's fall in
Q03. Today, most of Maliki's inner circle of advisors share
his Da'wa background. They include:

-- Tariq Najm Abdullah, Maliki's Chief of Staff, who was
active in Da'wa's London chapter in the 1990s. Abdullah's
cool and taciturn demeanor seems to exemplify critics'
characterization of the Maliki government. Critics within
the GOI have dubbed him the "shadow Prime Minister" and some
claim he sometimes countermands Maliki's written

-- Sadiq al-Rikabi, a senior advisor, also from Da'wa's
London chapter, is often at Maliki's side. The PM tasked him
with leading the Security Agreement negotiations after
essentially firing the Iraqi MFA negotiating team, which
Maliki reportedly thought too concessionary and too beholden
QMaliki reportedly thought too concessionary and too beholden
to Foreign Minister Zebari - a bitter adversary;

-- Ghati al-Rikabi (aka Abu Mujahed - a first cousin of
Sadiq), is an advisor and general fixer in Maliki's office;

-- Ali al-Adib, who now heads Da'wa's parliamentary caucus,
represented the party during exile years in Iran. He
sometimes represents Maliki in GOI meetings and in visits to
the provinces;

-- Sami al-Askeri is a nominally independent MP close to
Maliki. The PM appointed him to lead GOI efforts to bring
Sadrists and Shi'a extremists into mainstream politics;

-- Hassan Sunayd is a Da'wa MP who had been an advisor to PM
Ja'afari. A poet, he was jailed and tortured by Saddam. He
is perhaps the most liberal and pragmatic member of Maliki's

-- Ahmed al-Maliki, the Prime Minister's son and head of his
private office. He is rumored to have strained relations with
the Rikabis;

-- Mowafaq al-Rubaiye, now the influential National Security
Advisor, had been an associate of Ahmed al-Chalabi in
London's Iraqi National Congress. Though Maliki apparently
values Rubaiye's counsel on certain issues, he is widely seen
as an unscrupulous self-promoter and Maliki himself has
openly excluded Rubaiye from engagement in some issues --
including the Strategic Framework (SFA) and
Security Agreement (SOFA) negotiations.

10. (C) Maliki appears loath to delegate sensitive political
tasks to persons outside this group, with the net effect of
hampering the GOI's capacity and stunting its institutional
development. The most recent example of this phenomenon we
have observed has been the difficulty the GOI has had in
standing up bilateral committees to work with the U.S. in
implementing the Security Agreement and the SFA.

11. (C) Explaining the GOI delays and apparent disarray on
implementing the agreements, Sadiq al-Rikabi recently
confided to PMIN that he and his colleagues in Maliki's
circle were simply tired (and apparently tapped out).
Discussing an economic project with a senior USG official in
late December, Maliki complained, "If I don't get personally
involved, nothing happens." Clearly, Maliki's subordinates
have not been encouraged or empowered to take decisions on
their own - symptomatic of sclerotic bureaucracies across the

This Paranoid Really Does Have Enemies

12. (C) Maliki's reluctance to delegate authority reflects
both an urge to control and a distrust of those outside his
circle. In meetings with Embassy officials, Maliki regularly
voices concern about plots against him. The Prime Minister
seems particularly fixated on the activities of Ba'thist
former regime elements in Syria and Jordan. More damagingly,
the PM's deep suspicion of the Iraqi Army's leadership as
Sunni Ba'athist and the source of potential coup-plotting has
only partially been tempered over the course of the past two
years. Similarly, Maliki shows a tendency to associate all
Sunni (and more broadly, Arab) opposition to his policies
with Ba'athist irredentism. This manifests itself in his
strained relationships with Iraqi Sunni political figures
such as Tawafuq/IIP leader Tariq al-Hashimi. It is also
visible in his (mistaken) dismissal of Iraq's externally
displaced as Sunnis who have not come to terms with
post-Saddam democratic Shi'a majoritarian rule. Maliki's
sectarian suspicion also shapes his view of the Saudis and
other Arab neighbors as unaccepting of Shi'a in governance.
Maliki staunchly denies -- and we agree -- that he is
motivated by overt sectarian bias. Rather, we see Maliki's
worldview as deeply informed by the Shi'a historical
experience. Unfortunately, the consequences in terms of his
willingness and ability to reach out to Iraqi Sunnis and the
broader Sunni world are effectively the same.

13. (C) This said, the Prime Minister correctly sees rivals
across the spectrum of Iraq's ethnic, sectarian and political
leaderships as bent on his ouster. From the Kurdish
leadership (including KRG President Barzani, FM Zebari, and
Deputy Prime Minister Salih) to his Shi'a arch-rival ISCI
QDeputy Prime Minister Salih) to his Shi'a arch-rival ISCI
head Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim (and Vice President Adel Abd
al-Mehdi) and Sunni leader Vice President al-Hashimi, there
has been an unbroken and quite open criticism of Maliki's
leadership and proclaimed desire to see him ousted through a
parliamentary vote of no confidence. (This effort has been
hampered by fear of the political vacuum that would follow
Maliki's fall: There is no consensus among those who want to
bring him down about who/what should follow. Nevertheless,
the current impasse over a successor to ousted Parliamentary
Speaker Mashhadani is seen by some as a split between those
who favor a no confidence vote in the Prime Minister and
those who support Maliki.)

Stove-Piped Security

14. (C) Maliki has set up security structures that report
directly to the Prime Minister's Office, arguing that rather
than parallel lines of authority he is exercising the
legitimate authority of Commander in Chief. Indeed, the
Office of the Commander in Chief (OCINC) has been the object
of particular criticism over the past year as security
responsibilities have been taken in practice from Iraqi
security commanders and subordinated to OCINC
decision-making. The Counter-Terrorism Bureau (CTB) and its
Iraqi Special Operations Force fall entirely outside of
Ministry of Defense (MOD) and Ministry of Interior (MOI)
chains of command, reporting directly to the Prime Minister's
Office. Designed, trained and equipped by U.S. Special
Forces under the Multi National Security Transition Command -
Iraq (MNSTC-I), the CTB was originally conceived to fall
under MOD authority. Instead, the Prime Minister's Office
has assumed direct control of the CTB, and Maliki is reported
to be personally involved in both the CTB's targeting process
and its operational direction. Critics believe his
motivation was to create a politicized force that could
protect his regime. Maliki's defenders argue he was
compelled to set up the CTB -- and the OCINC -- to get a
handle on an unwieldy security bureaucracy at a time of
national crisis, pointing to the need for the PM's direct
intervention at the head of Iraqi security forces in Basrah,
Sadr City, Maysan and elsewhere over the course of 2008. We
believe both interpretations are correct. Maliki genuinely
sees his personal leadership and control as essential to
advance security and stability but has also directed assets
under his control to reinforce his political position.

15. (C) The CTB maintains not only its own armed operations
units, but also its own detention facilities (principally the
ill-reputed facility at Camp Honor - within the International
Zone) and even has on staff its own judges to customize
arrest warrants. Iraqi MOD interlocutors, and Maliki's
political rivals, have both expressed to Emboffs their alarm
over the extent of the PM's personal control over the CTB,
which has already apparently been misused as a political
rather than security instrument (see para 17, below). Like a
number of GOI entities, the CTB is technically
extra-constitutional, although the Prime Minister is pressing
Parliament to approve a bill that would legalize its

16. (C) Another controversial innovation has been the
establishment of Provincial Operations Centers, which
consolidate command of all ISF operations within their areas
of responsibility, a concept which originated with the 2007
Baghdad Security Plan. The model has since been replicated
in Basra, Diyala, Karbala, and Ninewa. Operations commands
all report directly to the Iraqi Ground Forces Commander in
Baghdad, bypassing provincial governors, who often are not
only cut out of planning and operational direction, but may
not even be current on what the ISF are doing in their
provinces. We know that Maliki often goes directly to Ground
Forces Commander Ali Gheidan, or to lower-level division
commanders, or with operations-level commanders such as
General Abud Qanbar in Baghdad with specific instructions.

Diyala Province: Smite Thy Foes

17. (C) The ISF's "Operation Benevolent Diyala," launched in
August 2008, was quickly decried by the province's Sunni
political establishment as a sectarian power play directed by
Maliki. Given the province has been one of Iraq's most
unstable since 2004 -- with Al-Qaida menacing the center and
north of the province, and the Jaysh al-Mahdi spilling over
Qnorth of the province, and the Jaysh al-Mahdi spilling over
from Sadr City in Diyala's southwest flank -- a robust
security operation was badly needed. However, of 1200
individuals detained by the end of 2008, 1150 were Sunnis,
including many local leaders of the "Sons of Iraq" armed
neighborhood watches partnered with the Coalition Forces, and
many local affiliates of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party.

18. (C) Sunni grievances grew after August 18, 2008, when
Maliki's CTB raided the provincial government center in
Ba'qouba and seized two of Diyala's most prominent Sunni
political leaders, in the process killing (apparently by
accident) an aide to the governor. Both the national and
Diyala provincial leaderships of the Iraqi Islamic Party have
told us they are convinced Operation Benevolent Diyala was
partly, if not principally, a partisan political operation.
The Diyala operation severely strained ties, which were never
good to begin with, between Maliki and Vice President
Hashimi, national chair of the IIP. Any political benefit
Maliki might have hoped to gain by means of the security
operation in Diyala appears to have backfired: The Sunni
Tawafuq list (IIP and its allies) placed first in Diyala in
the Jan. 31 provincial elections - winning almost four times
as many votes as Da'wa.

Kurdish Standoff -- Poxes on Both Houses

19. (C) The PM's centralization of control over security
forces, exaggerated sense of confidence in his own leadership
and judgment (a product of the security successes of
spring/summer 2008), his profound distrust of Kurdish
motives, and progressive Kurdish moves to expand influence
south of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) region came
to a threatening head in September 2008, when Maliki ordered
Iraqi Army units to deploy in Khanaqin, a Kurdish enclave in
Diyala. Technically below the green line separating the KRG
from "Iraq proper," Khanaqin, with an almost entirely Kurdish
population, had been uneventfully occupied by the Peshmerga
since 2003. A tense standoff between the IA and Peshmerga
ensued, with Maliki insisting that the Constitution gave him
authority to deploy the Army anywhere within Iraq's borders
and the Kurds arguing that he was being unnecessarily
provocative in a peaceful (and disputed) corner of the
province. Maliki's orders to reinforce the IA's positions
with a tank company suggested to some that he was spoiling
for a fight with the Kurds. Had the two sides come to blows,
it could have spread along the green line to Kirkuk and Mosul
and would have likely posed a grave threat to Iraq's
viability as a unified state. While the crisis was defused
following U.S. intervention and brokering by VP Abd al-Mehdi,
the fundamental dispute that prompted it remains unresolved.
Most importantly, the Khanaqin incident fed each party's
distrust of the other. KRG President Barzani is especially
distrustful of Maliki's intentions.


20. (C) Maliki's willingness to confront the battle-tested
Peshmerga suggested that he had no doubt whatsoever about the
Iraqi Army's fighting capacity. Maliki famously declared, in
the summer of 2007, that his forces were ready to secure the
country and that coalition forces could leave any time they
wanted. Maliki's inflated assessment of his forces'
capabilities was obvious in March 2008, when he ordered the
Iraqi Army to move into Basra and eject the Sadrist militias
and street gangs who had tacit control of the city and its
strategic ports. While the operation ultimately succeeded,
and indeed began the process of establishing GOI authority
over areas formally dominated by Sadrist militias and the
Iranian-backed Special Groups, its first week was marked by
logistical chaos and serious setbacks on the battlefield.
The tide only turned when Coalition Forces, whom Maliki had
characteristically not consulted in advance, launched a major
resupply and support effort.

If You Can't Defeat, Co-opt

21. (C) Despite Maliki's demonstrated willingness to use
force to advance his political position and strengthen
central authority, as in Diyala or Basra, he has also worked
intensively to develop and expand patronage networks. One of
the principal vehicles in this effort has been tribal support
councils (TSCs). Originally designed to consolidate tribal
support for security operations in Basra and Maysan
provinces, their mandate subsequently expanded to include IDP
returns, sectarian reconciliation, and economic development.
Feeding critics' suspicions that the TSCs were set up to
strengthen Baghdad's reach into the provinces, distribute
patronage, and develop loyalty to Maliki, the Prime
Minister's Office moved expeditiously during 2008 to set up
QMinister's Office moved expeditiously during 2008 to set up
TSC's across the south and eventually most of Iraq (ref B),
without apparent regard to the actual needs of different

22. (C) The merits of the TSC model are open for debate:
Maliki's supporters argue that TSCs are efficient mechanisms
for dispensing resources from the center to the periphery and
for empowering tribes as elements of stability and natural
partners for rural development. Regardless, the TSCs have
been perceived by ISCI, Maliki's principal Shi'a coalition
partner, as a direct bid to undermine the provincial
governments it controlled and seize the loyalties of its core
constituents. Certainly, Maliki's TSCs have further
alienated ISCI from the Prime Minister. (In the fall, KRG
President Barzani also lashed out at Maliki over nascent TSCs
in Kirkuk and Mosul, viewing them as an open challenge to
Kurdish interests in disputed territories.)

But In The Success Column ...

23. (C) Despite the considerable controversy Maliki's
approach has generated, there is no doubt that Iraq's overall
security situation has improved dramatically on his watch.
He overcame formidable domestic opposition, and intense
pressure from Iran, to shepherd the Security Agreement and
SFA through parliament. Even most of his sharpest critics
concede he showed courage in confronting the Shi'a extremist
Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM) in the spring of 2008. There is
consensus that Muqtada al-Sadr and the JAM have had their
wings clipped, and while not wiped off Iraq's political map,
they no longer pose anywhere near the threat they did

24. (C) Indeed, Maliki and Da'wa have been working
diligently, and with apparent success, to court the
disarrayed Sadrists and bring them closer to the political
mainstream (and even groom them as potential coalition
partners). Maliki's gambit to crush the JAM earned him the
grudging appreciation of many Sunnis and moderate Shi'a who
had previously seen him as a JAM enabler. Maliki is
particularly popular in Basra, which had been terrorized by
Sadrist militias and criminal spinoffs prior to the March
2008 operation against them. Maliki's "State of Law"
electoral list achieved first place showings in Baghdad and
eight of Iraq's nine southern provinces (voters punished the
Da'wa incumbent in Karbala, however).

25. (C) Maliki has also exceeded expectations to date in his
handling of the integration of the mainly Sunni Sons of
Iraq/Awakening Movement into the Iraqi Security Forces. Many
had feared that he would not honor the SOI salary system set
up by coalition forces and would instead arrest and purge SOI
leaders. While the transition in Baghdad province went
smoothly, signs have been less encouraging in Diyala, and the
GOI's commitment to find work for the 80 percent of SOI not
absorbed into the ISF remains mainly hypothetical. On the
whole, Maliki has thus far honored his commitment to take on
and continue the SOI program.

--------------------------------------------- ---------------
Conclusion: U.S. Interest in a Strengthened Center, But ...
--------------------------------------------- ---------------

26. (C) The critical progress on security and stability made
over the past year, while underpinned by the U.S. military
surge, owes much to Maliki's leadership and restoration of
central government authority. It is in the interests of the
U.S. to see that process of strengthened central authority
continue, but in a manner that is sustainable, based on
institutions rather than personalities, and reflecting a
consensus national vision among Iraq's main ethnic/sectarian
groups. In this regard, the PM's deep distrust of virtually
all other actors on the Iraqi (and regional) scene undercuts
his -- and our -- efforts to reinforce the still-fragile
institutional gains of the past two years. We have pressed
the PM and other political leaders to deal seriously with the
range of grievances that separate them and to move forward on
the various reform agendas articulated in the August 2007
leaders' declaration. However, Maliki sought to parry the
opposition's various grievances with the establishment of
five multi-party committees to resolve longstanding impasses
on security and defense, hydrocarbons, power sharing, budget,
and disputed territories. While the other parties delegated
different representatives to the committees, Maliki
characteristically appointed himself to represent Da'wa and
Qcharacteristically appointed himself to represent Da'wa and
his overworked Da'wa inner circle on all five. To date, the
committees have met only infrequently and have made little
visible progress.

27. (C) Maliki's position may not be indefinitely
sustainable. Tellingly, Maliki's parliamentary critics
continue to emphasize the CoR "political reform document"
rather than the five committees, as their preferred vehicle
for change. Maliki's government remains dysfunctional on
many levels. He has a strained relationship with Foreign
Minister Zebari (who openly refers to KRG President Barzani
as his boss) and is known to dislike and distrust Interior
Minister Bolani (who has started his own political party).
He rarely convenes the Executive Council (composed of the
President, the two Vice Presidents, the KRG President, and
the Prime Minister). His defenders argue the role of Iraq's
President and Vice Presidents is more protocol than
executive. With the Kurds, the mainstream Sunnis, and even
non-Da'wa Shi'a coalition partners largely alienated, it may
be a matter of time before dislike of Maliki and the growing
threat to their particular interests finally unites the PM's
foes and overcomes their fundamental disagreement about who
and what would replace Maliki after a successful
no-confidence vote.

28. (C) The results of the January 31 provincial elections,
however, with strong showings by Maliki's State of Law/Da'wa
list in nine of 14 participating provinces has clearly given
the Prime Minister momentum, allowing him to claim a tangible
base of public support, at least in Baghdad and Iraq's south.
While this success has likely taken some wind from the sails
of proponents of a no-confidence vote, Maliki's adversaries
might also calculate that they must act before the national
elections, expected at the end of 2009, to forestall an
irreversible consolidation of power.

29. (C) Faced with this situation, we should continue to
emphasize our support for institutions rather than
individuals, and for processes rather than personalities,
even as we are mindful that Iraqi politics will remain
personalized and divided for the foreseeable future. In this
regard, the U.S. is not without assets in attempting to shape
Maliki's actions. The process of negotiating the SFA/SA with
the PM and his team demonstrated the importance Maliki
attaches to building a strong relationship with the U.S. and
his ability to deliver on key issues. His advisors have
shared with us anxiety over the position the new
Administration will take toward the PM and have sought
reassurance that the ties forged last year will continue. We
should press the PM on institution and political consensus
building as key to sustaining and advancing our relationship
-- and support.


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