Maliki, Portrait Of Another Failed Arab Leader

As Islamists gain ground in Iraq and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appeals for help, the U.S. says it will only help if he first resigns. But it's not the only reason why his regime may fall.

Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and U.S. President Barack Obama
Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and U.S. President Barack Obama
Sonja Zekri


One of the nuggets of conventional wisdom frequently bandied about these days is that Iraq is entering a new chapter in the historic hatred between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

The Sunnis — old Saddam Hussein supporters and young jihadists of the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) — are fighting the Shias. What that mainly means is that they’re fighting against Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. It will be a war of religion that could rip to pieces not just Iraq but also its post-colonial borders and indeed the entire political architecture of the Middle East.

Another observation being expressed is that it’s no wonder this is happening, now that a dictator is no longer forcing heterogeneous groups together.

This all seems to make sense, but it’s only half of the truth. It is often the dictators who use, drive and sharpen religious and ethnic rivalries. That applies to Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, and it applied to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. It also applies to Maliki, a Shia, who has driven the Sunnis into the arms of his enemies.

Maliki is a creation of the Americans and the Iranians, and yet he may not survive this crisis. The extremists continue to gain ground. Barack Obama has sent an aircraft carrier to the region, but U.S. military officials say they won't launch an air attack against ISIS, as Maliki has requested, unless the prime minister steps down.

Obama wants Maliki gone in order to create a united government of Sunnis, Shias and Kurds. Theocratic, Shia Iran wants to have influence over the 60% of Shias in Iraq and exercise Shia dominance in the region, with or without Maliki.

Allies of convenience

Should Obama use the Iraq crisis to forge lasting links with Iran, that would be a true diplomatic master stroke. But it would be naïve to believe in that happening: The fight against ISIS may bring the two countries together for a while, but their respective visions for the future of the region are too different for chumminess to persist long-term.

Nouri Mohammed Hassan al-Maliki was born into a family of Shia activists on June 20, 1950 on the shores of the Euphrates, near the city of Hilla in southern Iraq. His grandfather fought the British, his father fought a new power, the Ba'ath Party — secular but Sunni-dominated — and both ended up in prison.

Maliki studied Arab literature, and it is said that he can still quote from pre-Islamic classics. As a student, he also joined Dawa, the secret Shia organization, and worked for the creation of an Islamic state.

He hadn’t yet turned 30 when the Islamic revolution in neighboring Iran both spurred Saddam Hussein’s rise to power and saw Shia (the second-largest denomination of Islam) gain political power. Iraq’s new dictator cemented Sunni power and persecuted the Shias during the war with Iran and after the Shia rebellion following the first Gulf War.

Hussein's regime killed 150,000 people, and most of them were Shias. America first supported the rebellion, then let the Shias down. Maliki fled Iraq in 1979 and lived in exile for nearly 25 years. During that time, he supported various efforts to topple Hussein and nursed anti-American sentiment. After the fall of Hussein in 2003, Maliki returned to Iraq. Although the Americans supported him for prime minister in 2006, he never forgot their betrayal of the Shias decades earlier.

That it should be Maliki to pressure Washington to send in troops (if only to ensure the safety of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad) is certainly an unexpected twist. Overall, Maliki’s development closely resembles the traditional career paths of autocrats who start out making promises to all religious, political and ethnic stakeholders but then go on to use their power solely to acquire more power and persecute former comrades.

A family dynasty?

Now, after the victory of his State of the Law party in the April 2014 parliamentary elections, many Iraqis fear that Maliki may try to claim life incumbency as prime minister or, worse, name his already powerful son Ahmed as his successor in a new dynasty.

As late as 2009, Maliki brought some Sunni Iraqiya members into the government. But American troops weren’t out of the country a day when he issued a warrant for the arrest of Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, the most prominent Sunni politician. Hashimi fled the country and has since been sentenced to death in absentia.

That marked both the start of Maliki’s ascendancy and a downward spiral for the young Iraq democracy. There has been corruption and nepotism among loyal Shias, and corroded oil revenues amounting to $90 billion in 2013. Tens of thousands of Sunni men are in prison, say human rights activists, and Sunni women have been abducted, tortured and raped.

Sunni tribes that Maliki and the United States had at one time helped chase out al-Qaeda feel betrayed. Additionally, in recent months Maliki brutally quelled Sunni protest in Anbar province, leaving hundreds dead. Meanwhile, the black flag of the radical Islamists was fluttering in Ramadi, and we now know that it was during this period that the rise of the ISIS militias was forged.

Not all Shias are with the prime minister. One of his biggest problems is his old rival Muqtada al-Sadr, the rabble-rouser theologian and anti-American militia leader. In 2008, when Sadr and his army were entrenched in Basra, Maliki sent in his army against them, forced American help with the endeavor, and a cease-fire was finally negotiated.

Now Sadr is calling for volunteers to defend the holy Shia cities of Najaf, Karbala and Samarra. While the state waffles, the hour of the militias has struck and the fate of yet another flawed political leader in the Middle East is more uncertain than ever.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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