New Paths to Power Emerge in Iraq; Cleric's Ascent to Local Strongman Illustrates Shift Underway

Nadhim Khalil is the authority in Thuluyah.
Nadhim Khalil is the authority in Thuluyah. (Anthony Shadid - Twp)
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By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 13, 2009

THULUYAH, Iraq -- Nadhim Khalil wears the clothes of the cleric he is. He bears the scars of the insurgent he was. And in a country where business these days is power, he talks the speech of the merchant he has become, plying his trade in a contest for authority.

Imbued with the swagger of youth, lording over this oasis-like town on a bend of the Tigris River, Khalil has power, the fruits of a singularly Iraqi odyssey that has taken this scion of a religious family from the leadership of the local branch of al-Qaeda in Iraq, responsible for a reign that saw residents executed in the streets, into the generous arms of the American military and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, his erstwhile foes.

Khalil's analysis is blunt: He used to be on the losing side.

His formula is simple: With God, guns and money, he is now the authority in town.

"I'm sure the Americans will leave after a little while, and there's nothing I achieve by killing them now. I could kill them anytime, anywhere, and so what?" he asked. "In the beginning, the thought was that you could achieve your goal with weapons, but honestly? That investment has shown no return. That company has shown no profit."

Khalil's ascent here is a legacy of the war that has all but ended and the struggle that has begun in Iraq, shaped by the expediency of American tactics to quell the insurgency and the combustible, shifting landscape those choices have left behind. War and occupation shattered old notions of power here, embedded in patronage and tradition. In places like Thuluyah, new leaders and forces are emerging, redrawing the maps of towns and regions that, in quick succession, have passed from the hands of Saddam Hussein, through the throes of the insurgency and into today's far murkier contest.

Fierce in its customs, Thuluyah is a microcosm of Sunni Muslim regions of the country, residents like to say. If so, the town is a sober harbinger. Khalil, often forthright, sometimes persuasive and occasionally thuggish, has become the strongman.

Just 30 years old, Khalil has inherited from his family the town's biggest mosque, where brimming crowds gather on Fridays for his stentorian sermons. He heads the council that oversees the hundreds of armed men who deserted the insurgency for U.S.-funded units known as the Sons of Iraq, outnumbering the police and army unit stationed here. The mention of Khalil's name -- Mullah Nadhim, as he is known here -- ensures passage through their checkpoints. He heads a council of tribal leaders that provides a channel to Maliki, who offered his hand in friendship in a meeting in Baghdad's Green Zone.

The elected city council can only watch and complain -- in whispers -- about a man they fear. The town's elders scoff at his age and pedigree, with a wayward glance.

"My opinion?" asked Abdullah Jabbouri, a council member and former general. He paused, smiling a little sheepishly.

"Anyone who has absolute power becomes dangerous, even to himself," he said.

Renown as an Insurgent

Khalil has long enjoyed prominent standing in this town of 50,000, graced by orchards and orange groves. His father, Mahmoud, was the head of the Caliphs Mosque, the town's largest, which Khalil inherited at 18. So was his grandfather, Khalil. In the days of Hussein, he had secured a measure of fame -- or perhaps notoriety -- when he was questioned for sometimes explicit criticism of the government in his sermons -- that it should build schools, not palaces, that its rule lacked the justice of Islam's forebears.

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