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
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.