Thursday, December 18, 2008

Maliki Cleans House

Over the past few days, dozens of members of Iraq's interior ministry have been arrested by an elite Iraqi counter-terrorism unit that reports directly to Prime Minister Maliki. The claim by counter-terrorism and intelligence officials is that many of these officials were part of a resurgent Ba'ath party (called Al Awda, or "the Return") that was quietly trying to coup Maliki's government. Apparently huge sums of cash for bribes were found, as well as documents.

If these allegations are true, then Maliki faces a very tough political struggle in the next few years. It means factions within Iraq are still quite dedicated to returning the Old Order, or some different one (like an Islamic fundamentalist state, etc)--they have not yet given up. Any sign of weakness on the federal government's part may open up Ba'ath or Sadrist coups, a declaration of independence by Kurdistan, or all sorts of other problems that would undermine the Iraqi state.

Maliki has few strong allies in politics--he was a bit of a compromise candidate. His list, the United Iraqi Alliance, includes Sadrites, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the al-Dawa party, Hezbollah in Iraq, the Badr organization, and a number of other relatively radical and unpredictable characters that do not have a great deal of loyalty for Mr. Maliki. He's become more popular since coming into office, and a fair bit more powerful, and he's able to keep everyone together. But everyone's grumbling as they behave.

But what he does have on his side are an impressive counterterrorism and intelligence unit (that seems to have caught some serious coup-planners early in the game) and a very professional military. The military is not completely competent yet--it will require the help of the United States to train and provide logistics until (hopefully) the US leaves. But it has done a relatively excellent job of not falling apart and fighting itself as it has attacked Sunni and Shiite militias alike. It is gaining a reputation for non-partisan and non-secular dedication to duty, and this will allow Maliki to combat most coup attempts that do not directly assassinate him.

The other possibility remains that there is no coup. Provincial elections are coming up, and the US--Maliki's biggest backer--has one foot out the door. Maliki may be legitimately concerned about his ability to continue holding onto power. The US may be legitimately concerned with what will happen as it pulls out--and any groups looking for their last chance to jump and try to shake things up pull their big stunts at the same time. But, when trying to make a democracy work, using authoritarian and underhanded police-state tactics to hold it together undermines the entire ideal being sought. We must hope that Maliki is not letting the ends justify his means.

But it's unlikely he is so foolish as to make blind attacks on political rivals. More than likely, his organization has found good evidence of some sort of bribery, corruption, etc. How much of an all-seeing eye Maliki has over his government is tough to say--probably not too keen one, given the state of the government in Iraq. But the arrests do mean one of two things: either high-level ministers are trying to bring back Hussein's regime, or Maliki is on the path of slowly becoming it in order to prevent it. The next 2 years in Iraq may be more formative than previously thought.