How is Nouri al-Maliki not in prison?

The received wisdom in the West is that the US is the main culprit for why Iraq today is a failed state. And there is certainly plenty, well-documented evidence that the poorly-planned invasion in 2003 had set the scene for years of conflict in the country. What is less understood is that the military and diplomatic failures of the initial invasion had largely been corrected, at great financial and human cost, through the Surge and the Awakening, by 2008-2009. 

The Surge, when the US recommitted itself to bringing order in the country in the wake of the Sunni-Shia insurgency — and the Awakening by which many of the militias formerly hostile to the US and the American-backed Baghdad government had been brought around and persuaded to turn their weapons on the rising al-Qaeda elements in the country — had set the scene for a functional state, and even a working democracy in Iraq. 

The real failure, since 2010, has been administrative. In this, the key culprit has been the Iraqi former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki was elevated to the post of prime minister in 2006 by the Americans, as one of the few Shia leaders of Iraq who would be able to command broad support amongst the diverse demographics of the country. And indeed, in his first years on the job he had been a major asset. 

He was key to the success of the initiatives which had brought Iraq to a promising position in 2009-2010. But his commitment, it turns out, was not to a united Iraq. Apparently, his primary allegiance was to his party, the Shia Islamist Dawa party, and to his own pockets. As soon as the Americans, now under the pacifist-minded leadership of the Obama administration, looked all set to leave Iraq, Maliki moved in to capture the institutions of the Iraqi state for his Dawa party. 

Nouri al-Maliki allegedly set up a system to funnel US aid funds out of the reconstruction effort and into his own private patronage network, buying the support of just enough followers – Shia, but also some Sunni and Kurdish leaders — to keep the gravy train rolling indefinitely. Some $500 billion were alleged to have been funnelled off through various schemes during his eight-year tenure as prime minister, mostly from US companies and tax-payers. 

Maliki’s twin moves to monopolise the political process in Iraq, while also robbing it of the funds it needed to rebuild, seem to be the key reasons for the implosion of political consensus in the country, and the rise of violent confrontation between diverse groups. What is more, the chronically under-equipped Iraqi army was so vulnerable to the early advances of ISIS, arguably because the money it had received to buy equipment had largely been siphoned off by Maliki’s cronies. 

But while the main blame falls squarely on the corrupt Iraqi political leadership for the catastrophic mismanagement of the country since 2010, the US is not without fault either. They had been warned by many of those working in the country for the American mission that Maliki was going to squander all the blood and money the US had invested in Iraq, for his own political and financial gain. 

Yet, eager to leave Iraq as quickly as possible once it looked remotely stable, the Obama administration failed to heed the warnings. And, perversely, after all the Bush-era rhetoric about bringing democracy to Iraq, it was the liberal Obama administration which first signalled the catastrophic direction Iraq would take when they decided to stand by Maliki, despite the charges that he had stolen the March 2010 election, in which he had nominally lost to a moderate, pro-Western, multi-ethnic coalition. 

However, he apparently managed to coerce the courts to rule in his favour. In doing so, the US, led by Obama, chose to favour corrupt autocrats for the sake of “stability” over prospects of potentially destabilising democracy. Except this time, the US has not reaped “stability” from its choices. It has reaped ISIS. The question that still remains relevant though is the following: How is Nouri al-Maliki not in prison? 

Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College and an International Security Lecturer at the University of Chicago. This article first appeared on

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