Global Policy Forum

Jawad al-Maliki: A Novice, but Outspoken


By Sabrina Tavernise

New York Times
April 23, 2006

Jawad al-Maliki, the Shiite politician selected Saturday to be Iraq's first permanent prime minister, is decisive and direct and known for speaking his mind, but has little experience in governing, Iraqi political leaders said. Mr. Maliki, 55, appeared stiff and nervous before television cameras as he spoke for the first time after his nomination by Shiite political parties on Saturday morning. Flanked by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, Iraq's most powerful Shiite politician, as well as Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the former prime minister, he appeared to choose his words to allay fears that he would be too Shiite for the job.

"Those who take responsibility in the new government will be representing the people, not their parties," he said, wearing a brown suit and a patterned tie. "These are the general conditions that have to be taken into consideration by the prime minister and his government." Mr. Maliki has not held a formal role in the Iraqi government since the American invasion, but his lack of experience in the executive branch might be one of his biggest strengths, some colleagues said.

Mr. Jaafari, who agreed to step aside this week, was distasteful to Kurdish and Sunni parties precisely because of his political track record, which they saw as poor. "He has a strong, clean bill, if you like," said Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser and a friend of Mr. Maliki's. "He doesn't have a lot of baggage behind him."

Jawad al-Maliki's (pronounced jah-WEHD ahl-MAHL-ee-kee) first name is Nuri, but he was called Jawad when he was an opposition leader under Saddam Hussein. He comes from a middle-class Shiite family in the south of Iraq. Born in 1950, he grew up in Hindiay, between Karbala and Hilla. Mr. Maliki earned a master's degree in Arabic language and literature in northern Iraq. He worked in the Education Department in Hilla, according to accounts in Iraqi newspapers, before fleeing the country in 1979. He spent 23 years in exile from Mr. Hussein's rule, mostly in Syria.

Mr. Maliki had been broadly considered one of the harder line Shiite politicians, a worldview shaped during those years of exile, when he ran the Damascus branch of the Dawa party, a religious Shiite party. Since crossing back into Iraq secretly in late 2002, not long before the American invasion, he has played a prominent role in the independent de-Baathification committee, showing himself as an uncompromising proponent of policies that took members of the Baath Party out of public jobs and alienated many Sunni Arabs. He speaks no foreign languages, but is able to hold forth on a variety of topics, said Zuhair Humadi, a former secretary general of the council of ministers, who used to talk politics and poetry with him over long Iraqi meals.

Perhaps as a measure of how little he is known, he is alternatively described as a hard-liner and as a man able to compromise. He was one of the main drafters of the country's Constitution last year, and it was during that time that he forged relationships with Kurdish parties. "People could reach a modus operandi with him where they couldn't with Jaafari," said one political adviser who is close to the Shiite bloc. "He's more rational." Still, some Iraqis expressed reservations that his hard-line reputation and direct approach might alienate others at the political negotiating table. An Iraqi politician who used to worked closely with Mr. Maliki said he is "inflexible, sticks to his own viewpoints, and is very bold in expressing them," and that character trait, he said, will eventually get him into trouble with the Kurdish and Sunni parties.

Mr. Maliki has been chairman of the Security Committee of the National Assembly, and speaker of the Shiite bloc, known as the United Iraqi Alliance. One independent Shiite woman politician said she had experienced difficulties with Mr. Maliki because she was a woman. Shatha al-Musawi said Mr. Maliki had refused to include her and three other Shiite women in a committee that was negotiating over the prime minister's post. "The incident along with my history of work with him in the National Assembly gave me this impression that he thinks women are not qualified enough for this kind of job," she said.

Ali Adeeb, Khalid al-Ansary and Omar al-Neami contributed reporting for this article.

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