Iraq's Maliki: Strongman or merely strong?

Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 22, 2010

BAGHDAD - When a series of giant billboards depicting the face of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki mysteriously appeared on a central Baghdad square several weeks ago, the response from Maliki's office was swift and decisive. Police were dispatched to remove the posters, which echoed the displays that had been ubiquitous under Saddam Hussein.

If Iraq's prime minister indeed has dictatorial tendencies, as his detractors allege, they do not include self-promotion of the Hussein variety. Maliki's aides say the prime minister was furious, and they suspect the billboards may have been raised to discredit him at a critical moment in the negotiations for a new government - to fuel perceptions that he is another Iraqi strongman in the making.

Whether he is such a strongman is among the critical questions that loom over Iraq's young and still-fragile democracy as Maliki embarked Tuesday on his second term as prime minister.

"He has the potential to be a dictator," said Faleh Jabar, an Iraqi scholar who heads the Beirut-based Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies. "It's my biggest fear, because that would destroy our democracy."

The pugnacious Maliki has been credited with steering Iraq out of the chaos of sectarian war earlier in the decade. Now he is destined to lead Iraq beyond the scheduled departure of U.S. forces at the end of next year, into an era in which the U.S. role in Iraq will inevitably wane, along with the ability to shape the country's political direction toward the democracy that formed a central justification for the war.

That Maliki has an authoritarian streak has been amply demonstrated over the past 41/2 years, critics say. Maliki, originally selected in 2006 as a compromise candidate assumed to be weak and malleable, has proved to be a tough and ruthless political operator who cannily subverted parliament to cement his authority over many of the new democracy's fledgling institutions.

In his role as commander in chief of the armed forces, he replaced divisional army commanders with his appointees, brought provincial command centers under his control and moved to dominate the intelligence agencies.

The widely feared Baghdad Brigade, which answers directly to Maliki's office, has frequently been used to move against his political opponents. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have accused him of operating secret prisons in which Sunni suspects have been tortured.

Supposedly independent bodies, including the Commission on Integrity, designed to investigate corruption, and the Property Claims Commission, which settles Hussein-era land disputes, have seen their parliament-appointed directors removed and replaced with Maliki loyalists, without parliamentary approval.

Absent from Maliki's new cabinet lineup, announced Tuesday, were appointments to the ministries of defense, interior and national security. Instead, he named himself, in an acting capacity, to the posts. Some Iraqis view this as Maliki's bid to further tighten his control over the security forces.

"We've seen Maliki move with masterful precision to control the army, then the intelligence services, and then secure a tighter and tighter grip over the civilian arms of state," said Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at the University of London's Queen Mary College.

"These aren't the actions of a decentralizing democrat. These are the actions of a man who wants to concentrate as much power as possible in his own hands."

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