Iraqi PM, a pragmatist who does not mince his words

Iraq’s new Prime Minister, Jawad al-Maliki, is not a household name in his country, but that may work in his favour as he embarks on the task of forming a government of national unity that will satisfy the main Shia, Sunni and Kurdish communities, analysts said recently.

His predecessor and party boss, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, had made many political enemies by the time he assumed Iraq’s most powerful executive position, but al-Maliki is a low-key political insider who has been steadily working his way through the ranks of Dawa, Iraq’s oldest and most respected Shia party.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who had been instrumental in the campaign to remove al-Jaafari, praised al-Maliki. “He is a patriot who was firm in his struggle against dictatorship,’’ Talabani said the day after al-Maliki was elected prime minister designate, ending a months-long standoff that saw an increase in sectarian violence sparked by the bombing of the golden mosque in Samarra.

Talabani said the straight-talking Shia politician was the “right man’’ to head a government of national unity.

Al-Maliki’s story mirrors that of many devout Iraqi Shia Muslims who opposed the secular Ba’athist dictatorship. Born Nouri Kamel al-Maliki, he joined the Dawa party as a young man.
He fled Iraq in 1980 after a Ba’athist judge sentenced him to death for membership of the party. Using the name Jawad, he went first to Iran, where he made contact with al-Jaafari, who was already exiled there. During the Iran-Iraq war, Dawa split into several factions and al-Maliki and al- Jaafari left for Syria after refusing to fight against Iraq. He continued his work from Damascus, directing Dawa’s underground network in Iraq.

He returned home in 2003 after the United States invasion and was elected to Parliament as part of the Shia alliance in January last year. He served as the head of the security and defence committee. More controversially, he sat on the De-Ba’athification Commission, the group charged with purging former Ba’athists from the military and the government. Many Sunni Arabs, who dominated under the Ba’athists, saw this as a means of securing their political marginalisation.

“If he can forget trying to pin us all with the Ba’athist tag, and work with the Sunni parties, then we have no problem with him,” said a spokesperson for the Sunni Accordance Front.

Al-Maliki has won a reputation as a skilled negotiator. Government sources said he was closely involved in the drawn-out talks to write Iraq’s new Constitution, and had been involved in every stage of talks on the new 33-point policy programme that will form the basis of his national unity government.

He backs Iraq’s new federal status, telling The Guardian recently that “the days of centralised rule are over”.

In contrast to his predecessor, who would engage in long rambling speeches that often baffled both colleagues and journalists, al-Maliki talks clearly and is more of a pragmatist than al-Jaafari. “He is untested. But I think people will know where they are with him,” said a Western diplomat in Iraq. “When he agrees to do something, he generally tries to do it.”—Â

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