What’s bad policy may sometimes be good politics. So it proved in Iraq where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has presided over a disastrous collapse of security since the departure of U.S. troops at the end of 2011 left the Iraqis entirely on their own. As The Wall Street Journal notes: “More than 7,800 Iraqi civilians were killed in 2013—the most civilian deaths since the nearly 18,000 killed in 2007 at the height of the sectarian conflict, according to the United Nations. At least 2,300 were killed so far this year.”
Much of this increase in violence is due to Maliki’s short-sighted alienation of the Sunnis whose leaders he has been persecuting and sidelining. This has allowed al-Qaeda in Iraq to revive itself in the new guise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. And this has given an opening for militant Shiite extremists backed by Iran to start committing their own atrocities against Sunnis in retaliation for Sunni car bombings of Shiites. Thus has the cycle of violence started spinning again.
Part of the problem here is the Syrian civil war, which has spilled over the border into western Iraq. But the largest part of the problem is Maliki’s conspiratorial, dictatorial worldview that treats as enemies those he should have been trying to win over.
The course he is embarked on is terrible for Iraq but it seems that it is good for his political prospects. In the recently completed elections his State of Law party emerged as the top vote-getter, winning 92 seats in parliament. That puts Maliki in a strong position to cobble together a coalition that will keep him in the prime minister’s office for a third term, thereby allowing him to further increase his already worrisome accumulation of power.
Why did Maliki win the election in spite of the terrible impact of his policies? He is in the position of arsonist turned firefighter: Having stoked sectarian passions and alarmed Shiites, he is now posturing as a strongman who can save the Shiites from further violence. This perception does not accord with the facts–Maliki is the problem, not the solution–but it is not the first or last time that voters have fallen for a politician who abets the very insecurity he is purporting to solve. Vladimir Putin is a beneficiary of the same trend, although he has increasingly disposed with the trappings of democracy which Iraq still has–but for how long?