Six years after Saddam Hussein, Nouri al-Maliki tightens his grip on Iraq
The Iraqi prime minister arrives in Britain today seeking UK investment. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad reports on how a leader once seen as weak is now being compared to his infamous predecessor
* Ghaith Abdul-Ahad
* The Guardian, Thursday 30 April 2009
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki surrounded by his bodyguards
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki surrounded by his bodyguards. Photograph: Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images
Baghdad has always produced more than its fair share of surreal conversations, but few can match the one I had with three Iraqi intelligence officers in the garden of a newly opened restaurant a few weeks ago. The three were former members of Saddam's notorious Mukhabarat. Now "reformed", they worked for the newly established Iraqi National Intelligence Service (INSI), a highly independent security service which some in the Iraqi government accuse of being too close to the US.
After a few pleasantries, which included frisking my shirt for wire-tapping devices, we sat around a plastic table while the most senior officer told me that his men were actively monitoring intelligence and military activities inside the government of Nouri al-Maliki. The two other officers looked in opposite directions as their colleague spoke.
"We have our own eyes and follow what they are doing there," the senior officer said. "Maliki is running a dictatorship - everything is run by his office and advisers, he is surrounded by his party and clan members. They form a tight knot that is running Iraq now. He is not building a country, he is building a state for his own party and his own people."
As a waiter in a white shirt and black trousers approached, the senior officer fell silent and his colleague ordered tea. Only when the waiter moved away, the senior officer continued: "We compile reports on their activities, generals' and military units' movements, and their corruption, the positions they are taking in the government and the contracts they are obtaining. But we don't know what to do with these reports because we don't trust the government."
The charges voiced by the INSI officers are heard, in hushed tones, more and more around Baghdad these days. Critics say Maliki is concentrating power in his office (the office of the prime minister) and his advisers are running "a government inside a government", bypassing ministers and parliament. In his role as commander in chief, he appoints generals as heads of military units without the approval of parliament. The officers, critics say, are all loyal to him. He has created at least one intelligence service, dominated by his clan and party members, and taken two military units - the anti-terrorism unit and the Baghdad brigade - under his direct command. At the same time he has inflated the size of the ministry of national security that is run by one of his allies.
Maliki, who many say was chosen because he was perceived to be weak and without a strong grassroots power base, has managed to outflank everyone: his Shia allies and foes, the Americans who wanted him removed at one time, even the Iranians.
In Beirut I met an Iraqi Shia cleric who settled in Syria in the 80s to escape Saddam's persecution. Maliki was the head of the Dawa party there and the two met frequently. "Unlike other opposition figures he [Maliki] didn't build wealth, he is very honest and very organised," he told me. The sheik, who spent more than 25 years involved in the opposition to Saddam, explained the conspiratorial mentality of his fellow opposition figures.
"The Dawa party in its methods and way of working is very similar to the Communist party. They don't trust anyone. They surround themselves with people they know. Maliki, like all of us, is the product of exile. They have suffered for so long in exile so now they trust no one."
A senior official in the council of ministers offered a less sympathetic view of Maliki's growing monopoly on the levers of power. "Iraq is ruled by institutions that are not covered by the law or the constitution, they have their own prisons and intelligence service, working for the benefit of the government, not the state."
Shifting animatedly on his chair, he counted off the elements of Maliki's security apparatus. "Constitutionally we have intelligence units in the ministry of defence and the ministry of information, but then we have the ministry of state for national security, run by Maliki's ally Sherwan al-Wa'ili. According to the constitution it should have staff of no more than 26 people, now they are more than 1,000. Maliki has his own intelligence unit, and military units that work directly under his command as the commander in chief. The prime minister is running everything through his advisers and nothing happens without his approval or his office, the office of the prime minister."
The official kept adjusting his jacket nervously and after a long silence, he continued: "They changed their rhetoric. They talk now about law and nationality but the reality is the same, they are the same sectarian people." Then, after a pause, he added: "No, it's not about sects any more its about the party, the interest of the party."
Observers not steeped in Iraqi history might be bemused to find that six years after the toppling of a dictator, after the death of several hundred thousand Iraqis, a brutal insurgency, trillions of wasted dollars and more than 4,000 dead US soldiers, the country is being rebuilt along very familiar lines: concentration of power, shadowy intelligence services and corruption.
"Political imagination in Iraq is still attached to the past 30 years," an Iraq analyst based in Beirut told me. "Credibility of the ruler is connected somehow to the old order." After reflecting on the time she spent in Iraq before the war she added: "Saddam Hussein is not dead."
Guns and steel
One morning, I watched the Iraqi prime minister visit the newly opened Baghdad archaeological museum. Hundreds of armed men stood guard around the concrete buildings, while armoured vehicles blocked roads miles away. A helicopter buzzed in the dusty sky overhead. Outside the gates, dozens of black SUVs waited like faithful dogs and women pressed their black shrouded bodies against the metal railing waiting for a glimpse of the leader. In the centre of this bubble of men, guns and steel walked Maliki, surrounded by a further three rings of bodyguards, dressed respectively in dark grey suits, khaki outdoor outfits and commando fatigues.
He moved between glass display cabinets, inspected Sumerian seals and Islamic bowls, and listened to the accompanying museum official explaining the stone Assyrian motif. After inspecting each cabinet, he moved his eyes from the artefact into the lens of the accompanying Iraqi TV camera, beaming his confident image live to the nation. Then his tour would resume and his halo of bodyguards, journalists and foreign dignitaries move with him.
It's a scene Iraqis would be very familiar with. It has been played out numerous times through Iraq's modern history, as its leaders have sought to borrow legitimacy from the nation's history. In the lobby of the museum, newspaper clippings show the dictator Abdul Salam Arif making a similar visit for the museum's inauguration in 1963, though with significantly fewer guards. Saddam visited too, although the newspaper clippings are not afforded the same prominence for obvious reasons.
Even Maliki's critics admit he is giving Iraqis what they crave. All over Baghdad, people tell you that Abu Israa, as the prime minister is fondly known, is the strong leader the country needed after the chaos of civil war, insurgency and occupation. His success in the recent local elections was one measure of this popularity.
An Iraqi veteran politician, who attended a tribal meeting with Maliki two weeks ago, told me it was very similar to a meeting he had attended with Saddam. "The tribesmen cheered for him, they chanted: 'Yes, yes to Maliki the leader.' Some unfolded banners and, just like Saddam, he went on talking for hours, without a coherent message." Half giggling, he added: "These are all the signs of The Day ... the day when the dictator emerges."
Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish member of parliament, talked in a similar vein. "The problem is the people, they want a strong person.
People are used to that image, because Iraq went through decades of centralised authority and because people who want electricity, water and sewerage think that the authority of a strong man can solve all these problems."
Any self-respecting Iraqi politician who wants to build his own power base must first establish or acquire his own intelligence service. After a couple of weeks in Baghdad talking to politicians, members of parliament and intelligence officials I came to the conclusion that Iraq has seven separate intelligence units. Or maybe eight. No one could agree on the precise number.
An Iraqi journalist with links to some government officials explained. "People shouldn't blame Maliki. The security situation creates from the leader a dictator, and that's normal and logical, to surround yourself by people you trust; your friends and family, because you don't trust the others.
"Maliki and the leadership of Dawa [Maliki's party] managed to obtain the loyalty of military and civilian institutions and commanders and now those officers are loyal to Dawa and moved their alliances from other parties.
"Officers, even if they are not part of Dawa, want to kiss the hand that feeds them they become part of the matrix because they are appointed by Maliki. For example, officers attached to the supreme council changed their loyalties to that of Dawa."
Faryad Rawandousi, a member of the security committee in the Iraqi parliament, said: "There are a lot of appointments of officers, brigade commanders and above - 140 ranks that come directly from the prime minister without obtaining the approval of the parliament. These appointments are done without going back to the constitution, using existing laws of the former regime without taking into consideration that we are in a very different political system."
"The big commanders are loyal to whoever puts them in power," an official in the ministry of defence said. "They support Maliki because he is not imposing on them difficult conditions and some moved their alliances from other parties."
All these signs are not enough to make Maliki a dictator in the mould of Saddam, says the Iraq analyst. "There is no return to the days of Saddam - this is at most a shaky dictatorship. Now we have many small dictatorships, not one strong one, and that will create checks and balances."
Charles Tripp, a professor of politics in the Middle East at the School of Oriental and African Studies and a leading Iraq historian, said: "Dictators didn't come out of nowhere, they didn't come by a great explosion. They come by capturing small things bit by bit. Small things are very telling - they tell you the nature of things to come. One day people will wake up and ask how did we come here, it must be an awful conspiracy."
Back in the Baghdad restaurant garden, the waiter returned with tea and sugar and the intelligence officer immediately changed the subject. "It's nice weather to sit outside in the gardens," said one of the other men.
"Yes, but the sound of the generators is too loud," replied the other.
When the waiter had left I asked the senior officer if he feared he was being watched. "We are all being monitored," he said. "We monitor each other." Then he laughed. "But Maliki's people are too young. In the world of Mukhabarat they are just learning."
* guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009