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How Nouri al-Maliki Midwifed the Birth of the
So-Called Islamic State


Nouri al-Maliki, spent more than two decades in Iran and Syria before the US occupation in 2003. Maliki, a hardline pro-Iran activist of the Da’wa Islamic Party, was approved as Iraq’s first full-term prime minister by the Iraqi parliament in May 20, 2006.[1] To demonstrate US approval and bolster Maliki, President G.W. Bush visited Maliki in Baghdad a month later.[2] Maliki was approved for a second term as prime minister on December 22, 2010. He was forced out of office on September 8, 2014, despite his and Iran's insistence on a third term. President Obama tolerated Maliki’s extreme sectarianism, ignored his divisiveness, and failed to stop his abuse of Iraq's Sunnis, which ultimately gave birth to the so-called Islamic State. 

The Islamic Da’wa Party

The Islamic Da’wa Party (IDP) was founded in 1958 by the eminent scholar and philosopher, the Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr. Muqtada al-Sadr is his nephew and son-in-law. Da’wa is the oldest Shi’ite political party in Iraq. It aims to establish a theocratic state. The word Da’wa in the name describes its mission: converting non-Muslims and non-Shi’ite Muslims to Shi’ism, in other words, proselytization.

Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr was executed, along with his sister, Bint al-Huda, by Saddam Hussein’s regime in April 1980. The executions followed a series of violent acts by Da’wa Party activists against senior government officials. Also, they might have been intended to thwart Iran’s attempts to export the 1979 Khomeini revolution to Iraq. Khomeini lived in exile in Najaf from September 5, 1965 until the Iraqi government deported him on October 3, 1978.[3] Khomeini and Baqir al-Sadr were colleagues at the Najaf seminary where Khomeini taught Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) and refined his thoughts on the concept of wilayat al-faqih.


Al-Sadr envisioned a generation of revolutionaries who would one day seize power to establish a Shi’ite state. In his book in 1975, Islamic Political System, he formulated IDP’s political ideology in four principles:


- Absolute sovereignty belongs to Allah.

- Shari’a law is the basis of legislation. The legislative authority may enact any law not in contravention of Islam.

- The people, as vice-regents of Allah, are entrusted with legislative and executive powers.

- The Jurist holding the highest religious authority is Islam’s representative. By confirming legislative and executive actions, he gives them legality.[4]


Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr essentially constructed what later became known as wilayat al-faqih, or the rulership of the senior-most specialist in Islamic jurisprudence, as the basis for future Shi’ite governance.


IDP represents a radical departure from the culture of political quietism that has traditionally characterized the Shi’ite ulama. In 1979, four years after the publication of al-Sadr’s book, the Khomeini wilayat al-faqih revolution in Iran was born.


The Islamic Da’wa Party received substantial support from the Khomeini regime. It is believed that exiled Da’wa Party activists in Iran, Lebanon, and Syria helped Iran create Hezbollah (Party of God) in Lebanon in 1984.[5] Hezbollah is an Iranian proxy, whose senior leaders are closely linked to Tehran.



Maliki Usurped the 2010 Elections While Obama Watched 
Maliki was approved for a second term as prime minister on December 22, 2010, this time after nine months of haggling and confusion. He refused to recognize the results of the March 7, 2010 parliamentary elections. His list, State of Law, won 89 seats in the 325-seat parliament, two seats less than the 91 seats won by his arch rival, the secular Iyad Allawi’s list, Iraqiya. Iran had adamantly refused to allow Allawi to become prime minister. A vote recount involving 2.5 million ballots in Baghdad reaffirmed the original result.[6] Nonetheless, under pressure from Maliki, an Iraqi judge allowed him to form a government. According to Emma Sky, chief political adviser to General Raymond Odierno, who commanded US forces in Iraq, American officials knew this violated Iraq’s constitution. But, they never publicly challenged Maliki’s power grab, which was backed by Iran.[7] A few months before the 2010 elections in Iraq, according to the New Yorker magazine, “American diplomats in Iraq sent a rare dissenting cable to Washington, complaining that the US, with its combination of support and indifference, was encouraging Maliki’s authoritarian tendencies.”[8]  Obama ignored the complaint. The Maliki/Allawi affair took place while the P5+1 nuclear negotiation was in progress. In taking Maliki’s side, Obama was consistent in his strategy to empower Iran.


Finally, it was pressure from Iran on Muqtada al-Sadr that made possible the return of his old arch enemy, Maliki,[9]  to head the cabinet. At that time, Sadr had been living in Iran for about four years (early 2007-January 5, 2011) in a self-imposed exile, after the US army wanted him dead or alive.[10] Sadr delivered his bloc of 39 seats in the 2010 parliament in return for eight ministries in Maliki’s cabinet.[11] He returned to Iraq two weeks after Maliki became prime minister.[12]

Maliki’s Sectarianism
A sectarian divisive figure, Maliki failed the political reconciliation test. On August 1, 2007, the main Sunni bloc the Iraq Accord Front, pulled out its five ministers from the Maliki cabinet.[13] A week earlier, five Shi’ite ministers loyal to former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi began a boycott, and the six Shi’ite ministers of Muqtada al-Sadr’s bloc withdrew earlier.[14] On September 15, 2007, Muqtada al-Sadr withdrew his parliamentarians from the governing Shi’ite grouping.[15] In all, nearly half of the al-Maliki cabinet, or, at least seventeen ministries, became empty.   


On August 16, 2007, a new parliamentary alliance was made up of two Shi’ite parties, the Da’wa Party and SCIRI, and two Kurdish parties.[16] The new alliance excluded the Arab Sunnis. Adnan al-Dulaimi, leader of the Iraq Accord Front, criticized Maliki and Iran. In an email to the Associated Press, Dulaimi wrote that there was against Sunnis, “An unprecedented genocide campaign by the militias and death squads that are directed, armed and supported by Iran.”[17] Maliki’s sectarian and corrupt reign was described aptly in Foreign Policy:


The security sector, which had an annual budget greater than the budgets for education, health, and the environment combined, was subject to minimal oversight. Soldiers were enrolled and paid monthly salaries without reporting for duty. Overpriced and faulty equipment was procured using the laxest [sic] standards. Training sessions were financed on paper but never took place in practice. Appointments were politicized. Officers close to the prime minister’s office who failed to investigate leads on terrorist attacks were almost never held accountable for their actions. Even the most grotesque failures, including the military’s passivity in the face of regular attacks against Christians in Nineveh over a period of years, went unpunished. Morale among the rank and file was low, and there was very little desire to take risks on behalf of political elites who were viewed as wildly corrupt.[18]

The Awakening Forces
In early 2007, American forces in Iraq were increased by 27,000 soldiers. The increase was known as the “surge.” General David Petraeus was made US commander of Multi-National Force in Iraq. Concurrently with the surge, Petraeus pursued a new tactic—training and arming about 100,000 Sunni tribesmen in the Anbar province, extending to Salaheddin, Diyala, Nineveh, and Tamim Provinces. Named Sah’wa (Awakening) Councils Forces, many were former soldiers in Saddam Hussein’s military and members of the ruling Ba’th Party. As a result of the previous disbanding of the military and the Ba’th party in May 2003 by Paul Bremer, many of the 400,000 men who had suddenly become jobless joined al-Qaeda, not only to fight the US occupation, but also to feed their families. Awakening fighters were paid by Petraeus US $300 per month each. They switched sides from fighting alongside al-Qaeda against US forces and Iraqi government Shi’ite troops (plus the militias of the Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army) to instead fight against their old al-Qaeda compatriots.[19]


Within a few months, the Awakening forces had reduced the level of violence considerably. In the Report to Congress dated September 26, 2008, Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq, it was stated that “Civilian deaths across Iraq have declined dramatically. During this reporting period, according to Coalition and Iraqi reports, there were 77 percent fewer deaths than during the same period one year ago.”[20]


The decline in violence was not entirely due to the Awakening project. The success was made possible through the cooperation of Iran. Tehran’s interest in calming matters down in Iraq during the remaining few month of the Bush administration’s term in office was designed to deflect a possible attack by the US over the Iran’s nuclear program. In October 2007, US military officials began noticing a decrease in the supply of Iranian weapons and assistance. Spokesman Col. Steven Boylan said General Petraeus observes that Iran is following through on promises it made to Iraqi and US officials not to provide aid to extremists in Iraq, adding, “we are ready to confirm the excellence of the senior Iranian leadership in their pledge to stop the funding, training, equipment and resourcing of the militia special groups.”[21] In a related development, on August 29, 2007, Muqtada al-Sadr suddenly ordered his Mahdi Army militia to suspend all acts of violence for six months and on February 23, 2008, Sadr extended the cease-fire for six additional months.[22]


US pressure made the Iraqi government agree to pay the salaries of the Awakening fighters[23] and to absorb up to 20 percent of the fighters into the Iraqi security forces, with others to be given government jobs.[24] However, the Maliki government reduced the monthly salary to $250 and absorption of Awakening fighters into the security forces was well below 20 percent. Maj. Gen. Mike Ferriter, deputy operations commander of the American-led forces, conceded at a press briefing that in the past year (2008), only 5,000 fighters had been integrated into the Iraqi security forces, mostly in the police. That was well short of Maliki’s pledge of 20,000 fighters.[25]


Maliki’s intention to dismantle the Awakening project became public knowledge. Defense Minister Abdul-Qadir al-Obaidi said at a news conference, “We completely, absolutely reject the Awakening becoming a third military organization ... The groups would also not be allowed to have any infrastructure, such as a headquarters building, that would give them long-term legitimacy.”[26] Christopher Hill, US ambassador in Baghdad between 2009 and 2010 recalled how Maliki resisted paying Sunni Awakening fighters and how he doubted the entire project, “I had to go to him, sometimes on a weekly basis, just to make sure the check was indeed in the mail ... Just looking at his body language, he didn't believe in the whole venture ... Nothing was squared away in 2007.”[27] Sheikh Awad al-Harbousi, who lost a son, a father and four other relatives to al-Qaeda, said, “The Iraqi Army considers us members of al-Qaeda, not Awakening Council leaders. We sacrificed to kick out al-Qaeda, and this is their thank-you?”[28]


As long as US forces were in Iraq, Maliki camouflaged his true sectarian spots. Immediately after US forces left Iraq on December 18, 2011, he embarked upon an aggressive program of marginalization of Sunnis. The next day, on December 19, 2011, Maliki ordered the arrest of Iraq’s Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi. He accused Hashimi of running a death squad that assassinated Shiite officials.[29] Hashimi was sentenced to death in absentia on September 9, 2012. He had fled first to the largely autonomous Kurdish north, and from there to Qatar and on to Turkey.[30]


In public remarks after a meeting on December 12, 2011 with Maliki at the White House, Obama praised Maliki for leading “Iraq’s most inclusive government yet.” Iraq’s Sunni Deputy Prime Minister, Saleh al-Mutlaq, told CNN he was “shocked” by the president’s comments. “There will be a day,” he predicted, “whereby the Americans will realize that they were deceived by al-Maliki … and they will regret that.”[31]


Six senators sent the White House a letter before Maliki visited with Obama on November 1, 2013 warning that, “by too often pursuing a sectarian and authoritarian agenda, Prime Minister Maliki and his allies are disenfranchising Sunni Iraqis … This failure of governance is driving many Sunni Iraqis into the arms of Al-Qaeda.”[32] 

The Fall of Mosul to the So-Called Islamic State
Maliki filled Iraq’s reconstituted army, disbanded in May 2003 by Paul Bremmer, with Shi’ite officers short on ability and professionalism, but long on loyalty to himself. Corruption became the glue that kept the Maliki regime together. On June 10, 2014, two and a half years after US troops left Iraq, about 1,000 lightly armed men from the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) riding in Toyota pick-ups forced 30,000 Maliki soldiers with tanks, helicopters, and heavy guns to flee the city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city of two million inhabitants.[33] The sectarian genie released by the American occupation starting in 2003, nurtured by eight years of Maliki’s sectarianism and corruption, meant that his armed forces demonstrated little military prowess, discipline, or professionalism. The Sunni soldiers did not want to risk their lives for Maliki’s crooked government. The Shi’ite soldiers did not want to risk their lives to defend Mosul’s Sunni citizens.


A just and fair-minded prime minister was needed for reconciliation and protection of the rights of all citizens, but Maliki’s pro-Iran policies and extreme sectarianism stood in the way. In reaction, Awakening’s tribesmen re-embraced al-Qaeda as if the Awakening project had never happened.


In the April 30, 2014 election, the Maliki List won comfortably. However, the fall of Falluja to ISIS in January 2014 and the calamitous fall of Mosul in June 2014 led to sharp criticism by both Iraqi political leaders and Washington of the Maliki years that had led to the Mosul disaster. A member of the Islamic Da’wa Party since 1967, Haidar al-Abadi was the Da’wa Party’s coordinator in the UK since 1977. He replaced Maliki to the premiership on September 8, 2014, despite Maliki and Iran’s vehement objection and insistence on a third term for Maliki. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was instrumental in forcing Maliki out of the premiership. The US supported the removal of Maliki as well. Abadi’s task was to recover Mosul, end Maliki’s years of sectarianism and divisiveness, and bring about national reconciliation.


When Obama entered the White House on January 20, 2008, he inherited a momentum of improving security in Iraq and a narrowing of the Shi’ite Sunni divide. Obama squandered a great opportunity to build on the fruits of the Awakening project. Instead, he tolerated Maliki’s extreme sectarianism, ignored his divisiveness, empowered Iran, and failed to stop him from breeding the so-called Islamic State.



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[1]Maliki Endorsed as New Iraqi PM,” BBC, (April22, 2004).


[2] Jonathan Finer and Michael Abramowitz, “In Baghdad, Bush Pledges Support to Iraqi Leader,” Washington Post, (June 14, 2006).


[3] Iran Chamber Society, Ayatollah Khomeini,


[4] Rodger Shanahan, “The Islamic Da’wa Party: Past Development and Future Prospects,” Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal (MERIA) 8, no 2, (June 2004).


[5] Juan Cole, “Saving Iraq: Mission Impossible,” Salon, (May 11, 2006).


[6] Khalid Al-Ansary, “Iraq Election Recount Over, No Fraud Found,” Reuters, (May 14, 2010).


[7] Peter Beinart, “Obama’s Disastrous Iraq Policy: An Autopsy,” The Atlantic, (July 23, 2014).

[8] Ibid.

[9] In March 2008, Muqtada led a civil disobedience movement to protest arrests of his followers by Maliki. Bitter fighting between Maliki’s security forces and supporters of Muqtada’s militia in the southern city of Basra spread to several Baghdad districts.

“Peaceful Iraq Protests Spark Clashes, 50 Reported Dead,” CNN, (March 25,2008).


[10] Patrick Cockburn, “The Secret US Plot to Kill Sadr,” Counterpunch, (May 21, 2007).


[11] Charles McDermid with Nizar Latif, “Iraq: Preparing for the Return of Moqtada al-Sadr,” Time, (December 20, 2010).


[12] Khalid Farhan, “U.S. foe, Sadr, returns to Iraq after exile,” Reuters, (January 11, 2007).


[13] Mariam Karouny and Peter Graff, “Sunni bloc quits as bombs kill over 70,” Reuters, (August 1, 2007).


[14] Iraqi PM calls for crisis summit,” BBC, (August 12, 2007).


[15] “Sadr Group Quits Iraq Ruling Bloc,” BBC, (September 15, 2007).


[16] “Iraqi Leaders Form New Alliance,” BBC, (August 16, 2007).


[17] “Iraqi PM calls for Crisis Summit,” BBC,

[18] Zaid Al-Ali, “How Maliki Ruined Iraq,” Foreign Policy, (June 19, 2014).


[19]Q&A: Iraq's Awakening Councils,” BBC, (July 18, 2010).


[20] Department of Defense, Report to Congress, “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq,” (September 26, 2008).


[21] Sara A. Carter, “Iran No Longer Aids Iraq Militants,” Washington Times, (January 3, 2008). http://www.washingtontimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080103/NATION/498097125/1001

[22] Sudarsan Raghavan and Amit R. Paley, “Sadr Extends Truce In Iraq. U.S. Officials Hail Cleric's Decision,” Washington Post, (February 23, 2008).


[23] Liz Sly, “Iraq Plans to Cut Sunni Fighters' Salaries,” Chicago Tribune, (November 3, 2008).


[24] Ibid.

[25] Rod Norland and Alissa Rubin, “Sunni Fighters Say Iraq Didn’t Keep Job Promises,” The New York Times, (March 24, 2009).


[26] Diaa Hadid, “Iraq Defense Minister: Disband Sunni Allies,” ABC News, (December 22, 2007).


[27] Warren Strobel, Missy Ryan, David Rohde, and Ned Parker, “Special Report: How Iraq's Maliki Defined Limits of US Power,” Reuters, (June 30, 2014).


[28] Rod Norland and Alissa Rubin, “Sunni Fighters Say Iraq Didn’t Keep Job Promises.”

[29] Jack Healy, “Arrest Order for Sunni Leader in Iraq Opens New Rift,” The New York Times, (December 19, 2011).


[30]Iraq VP Tariq al-Hashemi Sentenced to Death,” BBC, (September 9, 2012).


[31] Peter Beinart, “Obama’s Disastrous Iraq Policy: An Autopsy,” The Atlantic, (July 23, 2014).

[32] Ibid.

[33]Mosul: Iraq's beleaguered second city,” BBC, (October 18, 2016).