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Magazine / COVER STORY

Strong Man

Iraq’s prime minister was once the great hope for democracy. Today, he looks more like Saddam-lite.

Alone at the top: Nuri Kamal al-Maliki(AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

photo of Yochi J. Dreazen
October 13, 2011

BAGHDAD—The attack came without warning. In late May, Moaid al-Taeb, a 30-year-old human-rights activist here, was on his way to protest Iraq’s corruption and inefficiency when a large man in civilian clothes grabbed him from behind and started punching him in the face. Taeb was tied to a stretcher and shoved into a waiting ambulance. A few minutes later, men in tracksuits approached another activist, Jihad Jalil, and jabbed him with an electric cattle prod until he couldn’t move. They stuffed him into the ambulance, too. He remembers seeing Taeb, a close friend, lying still. “I thought he was dead and I was next,” Jalil says.

The two men say they were driven to the Muthana Air Base just outside of town, the headquarters for many of Iraq’s intelligence and counterterrorism agencies. They were ordered to stand on a runway in the sweltering midday heat for an hour; soldiers threatened that if they moved at all, they would have to stand there for an entire week. Over the next 12 days, Taeb and Jalil lived in a cell without air conditioning or running water. They were taken out only for daily interrogations about why they were challenging the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. Agents accused them of being Baathists or terrorist sympathizers and suggested that they leave the country.

One comment in particular, however, stuck vividly with both of them, interviewed separately four months later. “An officer told us, ‘Are you crazy? Abu Esraa [a nickname for Maliki] isn’t going anywhere,’ ” Taeb recalled. “Then he said—and I will never forget it—‘This is Maliki’s country now.’ ”

 

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After eight years of war, nearly 4,500 U.S. military dead, and more than $2 trillion spent, Americans rightly wonder what they will be leaving behind in Iraq. The country is more peaceful now than at any point since the 2003 invasion. Baghdad’s restaurants and riverside cafés are packed every night, and children’s laughter echoes from new swimming pools and amusement parks. High global oil prices augur for an economic boom; construction cranes crowd the skies over the oil-rich city of Basra. This is what progress looks like.

Yet politically, the arrow points sharply in the other direction. Government power—carefully distributed in the 2005 constitution—is consolidating in the hands of the prime minister. Maliki has refused to appoint either a permanent Defense minister or an Interior minister, keeping Iraq’s U.S.-trained armed forces and intelligence services under his sole control. He has also taken direct command of the ostensibly neutral 150,000 Iraqi troops stationed in Baghdad, using them to arrest rival politicians, human-rights activists, and journalists.

With that power, Maliki is cracking down on rival politicians. He told an Iraqi newspaper that Ayad Allawi—the former prime minister whose Iraqiya Party won the most parliamentary seats in last year’s elections—was “no longer acceptable to participate in the political process.” Aides later acknowledged that the prime minister would refuse to honor a pledge to share power with Allawi by putting him in charge of a new national security council. Allawi’s party responded with a letter calling Maliki “authoritarian and despotic.”

In another case, the well-regarded head of Iraq’s independent Public Integrity Commission resigned last month when Maliki pushed him to open corruption probes against two of the premier’s top rivals, according to one of the judge’s aides. Maliki is currently working to replace him with a member of the prime minister’s own Dawaa Party, U.S. officials tracking the situation said.

Perhaps most disturbingly, in an echo of Saddam Hussein, Maliki ordered the use of force against unarmed protesters: When tens of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets in February to demonstrate in solidarity with the Arab Spring, troops shot at least 19 dead and arrested thousands more. For good measure, they arrested and beat dozens of reporters who were covering the violence. “The way he is going will lead the country back to dictatorship,” Allawi said in an interview in his fortified compound. “He is opposed to power-sharing. He doesn’t believe in the devolution of power, and he’s not going to do it, full stop.”

Maliki declined to be interviewed, but his allies deny that he is expanding his control of the country. “The prime minister suffered a lot under the dictatorship, and he helped write a constitution [that] is precisely designed to prevent the creation of a new dictator,” said Sadiq al-Ribaki, a nattily dressed Dawaa lawmaker who has advised Maliki for years. “Why should anyone doubt what is in his heart?” Ribaki said that Maliki lost many close friends fighting Saddam, and he ultimately had to flee the country (for a lengthy exile in Iran) after the Iraqi strongman pronounced a death sentence for him. The prime minister has a deeply personal reason to avoid following in the dictator’s bloody path, Ribaki says.

But the evidence is not promising. If Maliki’s tactics—undermining political opponents, restricting the press, personally controlling the military, sidelining parliament, stacking independent governmental bodies—sound familiar, they should: They are the hallmarks of Middle Eastern authoritarians. Popular uprisings deposed Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali; Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi took flight this summer; Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh has said he could step down; and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is struggling to contain a revolt. Unelected monarchs in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and other Persian Gulf states have held on, but Maliki, who took office after democratic elections championed by the United States, is the last nominally elected Arab autocrat left standing.

“The way he is going will lead the country back to dictatorship.” —Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi

MOLTING

Not long ago, the knock on Maliki wasn’t that he seemed too powerful; it was that he seemed too weak. Senior Bush administration officials privately complained that Maliki—who took power in May 2006 after parliament pushed out his unpopular predecessor, Ibrahim al-Jaafari—was unable, or unwilling, to assert himself and to bring his fractious country under control. In a 2006 memo, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley told President Bush that Maliki “impressed me as a leader who wanted to be strong but was having difficulty figuring out how to do so,” a view shared throughout the administration, according to interviews at the time with White House and Pentagon officials. In Washington and Baghdad, they said, top aides considered ways to oust Maliki and replace him with another Shiite leader like Adel Abdel Mehdi or Hussein al-Shahristani, both of whom seemed like stronger managers ready to set aside sectarian interests for the good of the country. (Maliki’s close ties to Iran also alarmed Washington and many of Iraq’s Sunni Arab neighbors.)

Maliki’s standing improved in early 2008 when he ordered a high-stakes military campaign to wrest control of Basra from radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr. The assault was one of the first planned and executed almost entirely by Iraqi forces, and it initially looked as if it would end in catastrophe for Maliki, who had flown south to personally oversee the offensive. Sadr’s militia beat back the Iraqi army’s first attempt to enter the city and posed for pictures with burning jeeps and armored vehicles.

Instead of backing down, Maliki asked the United States for help. American aircraft pounded insurgent positions, clearing the way for Iraq’s ground forces to break through Sadr’s lines and oust his militia from the city. In Washington, the administration’s tone began to change. “Maliki’s bold decision—and it was a bold decision—to go after the illegal groups in Basra shows his leadership and his commitment to enforce the law in an evenhanded manner,” Bush said that March. By summer of 2008, Basra was under full government control. Iraq’s minority Sunni population, in particular, praised Maliki for battling a militia controlled by a fellow Shiite.

The first signs that Maliki might not be a Jeffersonian democrat came in early 2010, during the parliamentary elections set for later that year. Initial polls showed that Maliki’s State of Law coalition slate would score a decisive victory, winning more than 100 of parliament’s 325 seats. But voters were increasingly annoyed by charges that Maliki favored Shiites over other sectarian groups and by the country’s failure to provide such basic services as electricity and clean water. His public approval began to sink as support for Allawi’s Iraqiya Party—a secular lineup that included Shiites and Sunnis—grew. So Maliki launched what American officials described at the time as a systematic attack on his rival, using the powers of the state.

Diyala province, a Sunni region, was an Allawi stronghold. In February, just before the elections, state security forces abruptly arrested one of its most popular politicians, Iraqiya member Najim al-Harbi, accusing him of supporting Sunni insurgents and taking part in a homicide. A local judge ordered his release, but counterterrorism forces under Maliki’s direct control ignored the verdict and moved Harbi to a prison in Baghdad. More than 18 months after the vote, he still has not been charged or released.

When early results showed that Allawi’s party had won many seats in Diyala—and a parliamentary plurality—three of the victorious politicians got word that troops were seeking to arrest them before they could take their oath of office and thus gain immunity from prosecution. One of the candidates, a lawyer named Raad al-Dahlaki, says that soldiers showed up at his office and at his father’s home with a warrant stating that he could be taken in for questioning about ties to terrorists. Dahlaki says the warrant, which misspelled his name, appeared to be a forgery. All three hunted victors fled Diyala and hid until they could be sworn in a few weeks later.

Sitting in his tidy office in Baghdad’s heavily guarded parliamentary building in late September, Dahlaki says that the attempt to arrest him was part of an effort to hobble Allawi’s party before the elections. “It was Maliki and his party trying to take all the power in Diyala. If they had arrested me, they could have destroyed the Iraqiya Party in Diyala,” he said. “Iraq is already ruled by one party. When the U.S. leaves, it will be run by one man.”

Maliki’s behavior after the election was even more alarming. Iraqiya won 91 seats, besting Dawaa’s 89. Constitutionally, that should have given Allawi, the victor, first dibs on forming a parliamentary majority. But a day before the official results were released, Maliki quietly persuaded Iraq’s Supreme Court to let him share that right—a prerogative that he used to assemble a majority coalition. He also petitioned Iraq’s de-Baathification commission to disqualify dozens of victorious Iraqiya candidates, which would have barred Allawi from naming replacements and made Maliki’s own party the biggest one in parliament. The effort failed, but Maliki spent nearly a year sparring with Allawi over who would assume the premiership, paralyzing the government.

After lengthy U.S.-brokered negotiations, the two men reluctantly agreed to share power. Maliki would get a second term as prime minister and Allawi would helm a so-called National Council for Strategic Priorities, a body with vague instructions to oversee Maliki’s government and set policy on oil, security, and other issues. Maliki also vowed to give key ministries—Finance, Defense, Interior—to Iraqiya members. Instead, he assumed direct control of Interior and Defense and gave many of the most powerful remaining posts to members of his own Dawaa Party. He never created the council, and his allies openly say he has no intention of doing so. “The council that Allawi is looking to create isn’t in the constitution,” says Tahsin al-Sheikhli, a government spokesman. “Do you think any Iraqi will accept that? Of course not.”

Allawi, a U.S. favorite, says that Maliki is committed to sidelining rivals and centralizing power; the leader of Iraqiya also says he doubts that the prime minister will step aside as he has promised when his second term ends in 2014. “He wants to control the country for good,” Allawi says. “Promises can be set aside. If he was serious, he would pass a parliamentary decree to make that promise more tangible and binding. But his excellency the prime minister would never do that.”

GULAG ARCHIPELAGO

The fortifications and watchtowers of Baghdad, once guarded by American troops, are now patrolled by an elite security force, the Baghdad Brigade, that exists outside the Iraqi military’s chain of command and answers directly to Maliki. Last year, the Human Rights Ministry discovered a secret prison controlled by the Baghdad Brigade where more than 400 Sunnis suspected of terrorist ties had been held without charges for more than half a year. Many of the prisoners bore marks of torture, including scars from electrical shocks, according to officials. This year, the Los Angeles Times reported that the brigade was operating a second secret prison where Sunni prisoners had been held for up to two years without being charged or allowed to see lawyers or family members. This one is inside the Green Zone.

The Baghdad Brigade is just one piece of a sprawling security infrastructure that Maliki has built under his control, bypassing the Defense and Interior ministries. In 2007, during the height of Iraq’s civil war, Americans encouraged him to unify all military and police units—some 250,000 people—in Baghdad under one authority. So he created the Baghdad Operations Command, but he appointed a general answerable only to him to run it. The prime minister promised American officials at the time that this was just a temporary organization; he would dissolve it when Baghdad was more secure, according to a pair of senior military commanders who took part in those discussions.

Four years later, Baghdad is safe and the operations command is more entrenched than ever. In 2008, Maliki created a sister command, also answerable to him, in Basra. Iraqi officials say they have no plans to shut down the organizations or transfer control of the army and police units back to their normal chains of command. The constitution makes the prime minister the commander in chief of the country’s forces, but that title was supposed to be ceremonial. Tactical control was meant to reside with the Iraqi Ground Forces Command and the Defense and Interior ministries.

Observers are starting to worry. The independent International Crisis Group detailed the sheer breadth of Maliki’s power in an October 2010 report. In addition to the Baghdad Brigade—which has its own tanks—Maliki and his aides command the 1st Presidential Brigade, the 2nd Presidential Brigade, the 56th Brigade, and at least 15 additional battalions of security personnel that control checkpoints and conduct raids throughout Baghdad. Maliki has also taken over the elite Counter-Terrorism Command, a U.S.-trained and -equipped unit that was part of the Defense Ministry until 2007. It is now funded by Maliki’s office, which also gives the force its marching orders. “Without parliamentary oversight or legal basis, the institutions he established are accountable to him alone,” the International Crisis Group concluded. The “new security bodies are believed to carry out extrajudicial operations, uncoordinated with the Defense or Interior ministries, unmonitored by parliament and unregulated by oversight agencies.”

WHAT MALIKI MEANS

Maliki’s allies say that this criticism is unfair because Western armies are configured differently. The U.S. military has an enumerated chain of command, in place for decades, which begins at the White House, continues through the Pentagon, and eventually filters down to individual units, says Ribaki, the top adviser. In Iraq, none of those systems are well established yet, and somebody had to take control of the country’s security forces or risk allowing the country to spiral out of control, he said. “[Maliki] came to power in Baghdad when most of the city was under the control of Qaida and the militias. All he really controlled was the Green Zone,” Ribaki said. “He needed to do everything by himself or nothing would have gotten done. In 2006, the U.S. thought everything was lost and was talking openly about partitioning our country. Should the prime minister have sat aside and left Iraq to burn? It’s because he worked day and night that we moved from that situation to today’s stability. This is a great accomplishment.”

Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta, the Baghdad Operation Command’s spokesman, said that Maliki hoped to begin transitioning the roughly 150,000 security personnel under his control back to the ministries sometime next year. But Atta acknowledged that he hadn’t yet begun planning how to do so and that any resurgence of large-scale violence in the capital would force a delay. “In the future, the BOC will cease to exist.” he said. “But when that will be, I cannot say.”

On the political side, Ribaki insists that Maliki hasn’t appointed Defense and Interior ministers because he is still looking for candidates whose loyalty is to the state, not to sectarian groups. It is, at least in part, a legitimate concern: U.S. officials said that Bayan Jabr, a Shiite who held the post in 2005, used government troops to arrest, torture, and kill Sunni men. Similar accusations dogged Jawad Bolani, the last official to hold the post before it came under Maliki’s direct control. “The prime minister wants technocrats for these posts, skilled people,” says Sheikhli, the government spokesman, even if it has taken a year and a half.

U.S. officials, for their part, emphasize that Maliki, whatever his faults, is no Saddam Hussein. Saddam killed tens of thousands of his own people during his decades in power. “This isn’t Syria, it’s not Tunisia, it’s not Egypt, and it’s not Libya,” says Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, the top military spokesman here. “It’s not fair to overstate all of this. It’s just fundamentally different than what we’re seeing in other countries.”

But with the U.S. troop withdrawal on track—more than 140,000 troops have pulled out—Washington is in the uncomfortable position of watching Maliki acquire power without being able to stop him. An official at the U.S. Embassy who asked not to be named says that the Americans have neither the means nor the inclination to try to change his course because the most important objectives now aren’t connected to Maliki or his commitment to democracy. Instead, the Americans say, the primary U.S. goals are boosting the professionalism of Iraq’s security forces, devising economic policies that encourage foreign investment, using Baghdad’s regional influence to help stabilize neighboring Bahrain, and isolating Syria.

In part, U.S. officials simply don’t have many tools. President Obama has made it clear he doesn’t care for the costly, often-failed reconstruction projects that were a hallmark of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy. That leaves precious few carrots for Americans. Maliki, according to several of his aides, also thinks that Washington is so eager to prevent him from aligning with Iran that it won’t bicker with him about his treatment of political rivals, human-rights activists, or journalists. Moreover, Iraq has no history of democracy: It has been ruled, for decades, by despots who took power by deposing (and often killing) their predecessors; it’s possible that any Iraqi leader would have turned out to be an autocrat in the Maliki mold.

And things could always be worse. Maliki’s security apparatus hasn’t turned its full firepower on Iraqi civilians. Although rival politicians are being harassed and imprisoned, they aren’t being shot or beaten to death. Public protests are permitted and generally pass without violence. Some Iraqi newspapers and television stations have been shuttered after criticizing the government, but others remain open, if chastened.

Yet if Maliki is no Saddam, even his closest allies concede that he is also no democrat. “No one from the religious parties believes in democracy,” a close Maliki adviser says, speaking anonymously to avoid retribution. “They believe in democratic means as a way of getting power. Sunni or Shia, they talk about believing in democratic means, but they never talk about believing in democracy itself.”

And that may be the most dispiriting development of all. Americans once talked of turning Iraq into a functioning democracy that could inspire other Arab nations—the “demonstration effect,” they called it. Instead, the reverse is happening. Iraq is absorbing a lesson from neighboring Syria: Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki seems determined to hold onto power by any means necessary. A succession of authoritarian strongmen has long ruled the country. With U.S. influence at an all-time low, Maliki looks like the next in line.

This story was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. 

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