By Liz Sly
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 22, 2010; 12:56 AM
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, square-jawed 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 4 1/2 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."'He's not a dictator'
Maliki's supporters defend his behavior as that of a patriot who only wants stability for his country. When Maliki took office in 2006, Iraq was sliding into chaos, Sunnis and Shiites were slaughtering one another on the streets, and Iraq's security forces barely functioned, said Sami al-Askari, one of Maliki's closest advisers. "He is a strong personality, but he's not a dictator," Askari said. "He's courageous and not reluctant to take hard decisions when needed."
Among those who grew to respect Maliki was Ryan C. Crocker, who was U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to '09. In that capacity, Crocker met with Maliki several times a week to oversee the surge of U.S. troops and then the negotiations for a security deal that spelled out the terms of a U.S. withdrawal by the end of 2011.
"Maliki's vision is that the prime minister has to grab every shred of power, or centrifugal forces will kick in and Iraq will become unglued," Crocker said. "He will try to accrue as much power as he can. But I think Maliki is light years away from being a truly authoritarian or dictatorial figure."
With his gold-rimmed glasses and perpetual scowl, Maliki often comes across more as a grumpy schoolteacher than a strongman. At the official unveiling of his government Tuesday, Maliki read out his 43-point program in a dour monotone, as though irritated that he had to explain himself at all to the legislators voting to approve his term in office.
Those who know him say he trusts few outside a tightly knit circle of close advisers, a legacy, perhaps, of the many years he spent in opposition to Hussein with his then-outlawed Dawa party. His temper is legendary, but he also has a wry sense of humor, said one former aide.
"I did come to admire his courage and persistence," Crocker said. "He just stuck with it. This is a 15-hour, seven-day-a-week guy, and his persistence is incredible."Humbling experience
That Maliki retained his job is testimony to his acute political skills and his renowned tenacity. For much of the nine-month deadlock that followed the March election, Iraq's feuding Shiite and Sunni politicians were united only in their opposition to a second Maliki term, testimony also to the enmity he generated during his quest to cement his authority.
But the experience may also have humbled Maliki, by teaching him that he cannot expect to rule Iraq without the support of allies, said Qassem Dawood, a former legislator who was once one of Maliki's fiercest critics.
"I hope he learned a lesson from the past nine months of delay that the main complaint against him is this point," Dawood said. "I don't think he will have the free hand that he had before to consolidate power."
Many are hoping that the new parliament, in which Sunnis control a sizable number of seats, and the power-sharing government, in which Sunnis have been given charge of key ministries, will act as a check on any authoritarian tendencies Maliki may have.
U.S. officials say they are comfortable with a second Maliki term. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad threw its support behind him early in the process of government formation, viewing Maliki as the best hope for a smooth transition at a time when U.S. troops were drawing drawn.
U.S. officials also proposed the formation of a council on national strategy, to be led by Maliki's chief rival, Ayad Allawi, in part as a means to check the expanding authorities of the prime minister.
Legislation to create the council has not been presented to the parliament, however, and it remains unclear what powers, if any, the body will have. Maliki's allies suggest that it won't have many.
"Be satisfied that it will not interfere with the prime minister's executive authorities," said lawmaker Ali al-Adeeb, a senior member of the Dawa party.
Iraq's challenge is bigger than building democracy, said Jabar, the scholar. "It's about reversing what happened over the past four years," he said.
But Maliki's defenders say he will be better able to govern than he was when he first took office.
"He's now more experienced and relaxed," said Askari, the Maliki aide. "In 2006, Iraq was in a very bad situation and the country was on the verge of civil war. Now he's in full control of the security forces and has full political control. He will be more able to do what he likes to do."
Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington and special correspondents Ali Qeis and Aziz Alwan in Baghdad contributed to this report.