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