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.”
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.”