After nearly 20 years in power, Iraq’s ruling elites look detached, impotent, and despairing of their oil-rich nation. While their counterparts in the region struggle to transform their counties into thriving global centres, Iraq has tumbled under their rule into a place of endemic corruption, instability, societal fractures, and economic stagnation.
As the leaders of many neighbouring countries unveil ambitious multi-billion-dollar mega-projects, Iraq has remained battered by the grisly consequences of its mismanagement, cronyism, and kleptocratic rule.
It is also haunted by a deepening political crisis that has recently taken a turn for the worse. The latest twist in the political wrangling over the formation of a new government in Iraq has been trigged by leaked audio recordings attributed to former prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki.
In the “Malikileaks” recordings, Al-Malaki is heard claiming that his arch rival Muqtada Al-Sadr, whose political faction the Sadrist Trend emerged as the biggest winner in Iraq’s October legislative elections, is backed by Britain. He vows that he will fight the prominent Shia cleric in his stronghold of the holy city of Najaf.
In a subsequent recording, Al-Maliki, currently head of the pro-Iranian Coordination Framework Bloc, accuses Al-Sadr of a kidnapping and murder campaign against Sunnis across Iraq during the years of sectarian violence following the 2003 US-led invasion.
In another recording he blames Sunni leaders such as Parliamentary Speaker Mohamed Al-Halbousi and Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani for being “in partnership” with Al-Sadr and warns that this tripartite alliance will drive Iraq into a “dangerous zone.”
“Iraq is on the verge of a devastating war from which no one will emerge unscathed, unless the project of Muqtada Al-Sadr, Masoud Barzani and Mohamed Al-Halbousi is defeated,” Al-Maliki said.
Al-Maliki is also heard saying in one audio recording that he told caretaker Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi that he does not recognise the authority of the army and the police and is willing to use force against Al-Sadr.
“I know Al-Sadr will target me first because I destroyed him. But I will not keep the Shias and Iraq in the hands of Muqtada Al-Sadr. The Ministry of the Interior may not be able to do so, but I can,” Al-Maliki boasted.
The Iraqi judiciary has announced it will launch a probe into the voice recordings after Al-Maliki dismissed them as fakes. Many people closely associated with Al-Maliki have confirmed the authenticity of the recordings, with some saying they have heard him making such claims before.
While in office between 2006 and 2014, Al-Maliki battled Al-Sadr’s armed wing the Al-Mahdi Army for control of Shia politics, killing hundreds of his followers and imprisoning many more. The relationship between the two groups has taken on a vengeful dimension since then, and their rivalries have deepened.
After Al-Sadr withdrew his supporters from the Iraqi parliament earlier this year and many of Al-Maliki’s followers filled their seats, the latter stepped up his efforts to push the Shia Coordination Framework Bloc into nominating him for the post of prime minister.
As expected, the leaks have sparked outrage among the Sadrists, but Al-Sadr himself has been quick to urge his followers not to “fall for sedition.” “Do not heed the leaks. We do not care about him,” Al-Sadr said in a statement.
However, Al-Sadr has demanded that Al-Maliki quit politics and urged the former prime minister’s political allies within the Coordination Framework Bloc and his tribe to denounce his remarks.
Many other politicians have expressed their dismay, and some fear that the leaks will deepen the 10-month-old government crisis in Iraq. Ali Al-Allak, a key member of Al-Maliki’s Dawa Party, urged him to resign from the party’s leadership if the recordings are found to be authentic.
The controversy over the recordings has further ratcheted up the political tensions in Iraq, as the country remains in deadlock ten months after elections that failed to deliver a new president or prime minister.
The audio leaks have also coincided with a significant deterioration in security after Turkish artillery pounded a village in northern Iraq and killed nine tourists and wounded at least 23 people, including children.
Mobile-phone videos taken at the time of the attack at a water park where tourists from southern Iraq had sought respite from the baking summer heat showed horrifying images of dead bodies and wounded people being carried in pickups to hospitals while the sound of gunfire could be heard at the site.
The assault has sparked anti-Turkish demonstrations in Iraq, and protesters have rallied outside Turkish-owned buildings and Turkish consular offices in Baghdad and other cities, angrily demanding accountability from Ankara and burning Turkish flags.
The Iraqi government summoned the Turkish ambassador to Baghdad to launch an official protest. It recalled its chief diplomat in Ankara and said it would submit an official complaint to the UN Security Council on the Turkish attack.
Turkey has denied its involvement and has said that forces belonging to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan (PKK) which is fighting for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey, carried out the strike.
Amid heightened tensions days after the attack, violent reactions followed as several rockets and bomb-laden drones were used to hit Turkish outposts in northern Iraq. Threats were also made that more attacks would come if Turkey maintained its military presence in the area.
Over recent months, Turkey has escalated operations along its 300 km border with Iraq, claiming it is battling PKK fighters that it accuses of relying on rear bases and training camps hidden in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan to carry out subversive activities in Turkey.
The Malikileaks and now the Turkish attack are inseparable with respect to how the performance and effectiveness of the political leadership is viewed in Iraq. In both cases, Iraq’s ruling elites have showed alarming inefficiency and incompetence in every dimension, bordering on vulgarity and meanness.
The Al-Maliki recordings are an exemplary episode of the obscene behaviour among Iraq’s politicians, showing how Al-Maliki described rivals and allies alike in a display of self-promotion and bombast that has tipped those who have listened to the audio recordings into a place of near insanity.
Al-Maliki is no stranger to controversy, but his vulgarity in these recordings points to a painful truth that reveals the detestable reality of Iraq’s political elites. These display an insatiable lust for power along with routine insensibility and disregard for the interests of their battered nation.
During his tenure, Al-Maliki was well known for doing all he could to cow anyone defying his increasingly autocratic rule in order to maintain his hold on power. This led even some of his closest allies to compare him with former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
In the recordings, Al-Maliki, who tried while in office to consolidate his power and debar his opponents from ruling the country, can be heard betting on an intra-Shia war to bring him back to power, only this time as an absolute leader.
On Turkey’s repeated attacks, the killing of innocent civilians, the destruction of villages, and the systematic encroachment on Iraq’s sovereignty, the Iraqi leadership has showed dismal ineptitude in defending their country and protecting its citizens.
When the Iraqi parliament met on Saturday to question the government about its response to Turkey’s aggression, Defence Minister Jimaa Enad and army commanders told MPs that Iraq lacked the military capabilities to stand up to Turkey.
Foreign Minister Fouad Hussein also told the parliament that his ministry has counted more than 22,700 Turkish violations against Iraq since 2018, with these having been met by 296 diplomatic protests.
Iraqi National Security Adviser Qassim Al-Aaraji earlier urged Iraqis waging anti-Turkey protests to show self-restraint, saying they “should not be pushed by calls to sabotage our foreign relations.”
Iraq’s post-Saddam diplomatic and defence strategies have been calamitous for the country and have had devastating domestic political consequences, and such statements from policymakers and strategists show the worst policy blunders that any country can suffer.
The Iraqi leadership has gone missing on different domestic and external directions, and the ways in which it is handling the present challenges indicate it has passed all levels of mediocrity in terms of its weakness, selfishness, incompetence, and defeatism.
The Malikileaks and the mishandling of Turkey’s violations of the country’s sovereignty have showed that Iraq is utterly lacking in the kind of efficient, visionary, and courageous leaders it needs to meet the increasingly complex challenges the country faces while serving as an example to their people.
As the country’s political stalemate deepens, the key question now is whether Iraq can find a new leadership that can meet the expectations of its people. For the time being, poor political leadership and bad governance are the greatest barriers to peace, stability, and development in Iraq.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.