Former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki is a divisive figure in Iraqi politics and this weekend became a target for protests. Al-Maliki is criticised for fomenting sectarian tension, alienating Sunni communities, and eroding the state’s capacity to provide security. Some, including Sadrists, argue that this created the conditions for the Islamic State group to commit atrocities like the Camp Speicher massacre in 2014, in which more than 1,500 Iraqi air force cadets were murdered.
At the weekly pro-reform demonstration in Baghdad on Friday some protesters held banners critical of al-Maliki and his political legacy. That evening in Nasiriyah, a city south of Baghdad, a lively crowd gathered outside the hotel where al-Maliki was staying to deliver the message that he was not welcome. Al-Maliki left for the southern port city of Basra – crowds sprung up to harass him there, too, and forced him to abandon a press conference. Protesters included both civic and Sadrist activists as well as family members of Camp Speicher victims.
This is not the first time that the families of terrorism victims have joined protests or that activists have demanded that politicians be held accountable for terrorism. During the second attempt to infiltrate Baghdad’s Green Zone in May 2016, relatives of those killed in a recent bombing in Sadr City planned to perform a symbolic funeral ceremony to demand accountability for ineffective security. That protest was violently repressed. During mass demonstrations in June 2016, protesters again called for accountability, declaring that the blood of terrorism victims was “in the necks” of the corrupt political elite.
Nor is it the first time that al-Maliki has been targeted by angry protesters or accused of creating the conditions for emergence and growth of the Islamic State group. Last month, al-Maliki visited Kerbala to take part in the Arbaeen pilgrimage and was hounded by Iraqis who shouted abuse and forced him to leave. Sadrist Line activists refer to al-Maliki as Speicher Man and hold him directly responsible for the 2014 massacre. They also remember that it was al-Maliki who led a military offensive against the Sadrist Line’s armed group, the Mahdi Army, in 2008. Some Sadrist activists have told me that they wish to see al-Maliki face trial for his crimes – just as Saddam Hussein did.
It is not clear to me whether the anti-Maliki protests are directed by or endorsed by Muqtada al-Sadr, or whether they are a spontaneous expression of popular anger. I suspect they are a little of both. Either way, they provide a firm indication that, contrary to recent speculation, a brokered political reconciliation between al-Sadr and al-Maliki is not likely any time soon. Above all, the anger toward al-Maliki can be seen as part of the broader civil society critique of Iraq’s political system and elite which sees corruption and sectarian quotas as the cause of ineffective governance and vulnerability to terrorism.
Feature image: Banners stating that Nouri al-Maliki is not welcome in Nasiriyah via twitter user @NazliTarzi on 9 December 2016.