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COVER STORY

Strong Man

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

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

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.

This article appears in the October 15, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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