In 2001, amidst a gathering storm that eventually led to the US invasion of Iraq and the annihilation of Saddam Hussain’s dictatorship, an unidentified former Iraqi diplomat living in exile told the BBC: “Saddam is a dictator who is ready to sacrifice his country, just so long as he can remain on his throne in Baghdad.”
Eleven years on, with Saddam dead and the Americans gone, similar sentiments are being aired on the streets of Baghdad and other places in Iraq. This time the label of “dictator” is being attached to Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki and his Dawa Party. The voices of protest are growing louder by the day, with the opponents accusing Al Maliki of attempting to usurp extra-constitutional powers and using oppressive tactics to put down his critics — tactics that would have made Saddam proud.
For the uninitiated in Iraqi affairs (there may be very few, if any, considering what the region has endured during the past decade) this may sound alarming. But events in the country since the departure of the last American soldier in December suggest otherwise.
After a follow-up visit to Washington, Al Maliki flew back home and promptly ordered the arrest of Iraqi Vice President Tarek Al Hashemi for allegedly running a hit squad that was accused of assassinating government and security officials years ago — in the process giving the impression that he had the US behind him. Al Hashemi, who denies the charges, has fled to the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan and the ensuing stand-off is threatening to tear Iraq along sectarian lines. The prime minister has no authority to send his forces into Kurdistan to execute the arrest warrant, and the Kurds, including Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani, are not cooperating.
Al Maliki claims that the Iraqi judiciary threatened him with arrest if he did not enforce the arrest warrants issued against Al Hashemi. In an interview with Sumerian TV, he described the arrest order as a “purely judicial process and not related to the liquidation of political opponents”. He also tried to use his highly publicised meeting with the visiting US Senator, Joseph Lieberman, as an endorsement.
Few are buying Al Maliki’s case in a country that is increasingly getting polarised, exposing the old faultlines and unravelling the so-called national unity that the United States cobbled together before exiting. What is worse, the crisis has re-ignited the very fears of civil strife along sectarian lines, which Saddam used so effectively to sustain his brutal dictatorship.
The standoff pits Al Maliki’s predominantly Shiite Dawa Party against the once-powerful Sunni factions led by the Iraqiya Party. Writing in the New York Times recently, Iraqiya leader and former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi lamented that the US withdrawal has left behind “the Iraq of our nightmares: a country in which a partisan military protects a sectarian, self-serving regime rather than the people or the Constitution; the judiciary kowtows to those in power; and the nation’s wealth is captured by a corrupt elite rather than invested in the development of the nation”.
The article, which was republished in Gulf News, was co-authored by Osama Al Nujaifi, the Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, and Rafe Al Essawi, Finance Minister, giving Allawi’s words extra clout. What alarms many Iraqis is how quickly the situation has deteriorated and how rapidly the poison of sectarianism is spreading. Iraq is used to today’s ruling parties (often yesterday’s opposition) perpetuating the rule of the community in power. Under Saddam’s Baath Party oppression was universal, although the Shiites felt they suffered far more than the Sunnis. Samil Al Askari, a prominent Dawa Party member, wrote in 2002: “Democracy will give the Shiites, who make up 60 per cent of the population, an historic opportunity to reshape Iraq’s political structure.”
The political crisis has been accompanied by a new wave of attacks on the streets that have claimed dozens of lives. Critics say this is a sign of various militant factions jostling for positions in anticipation of the government’s collapse or, worse, the return of the guns to the streets of Baghdad.
Sabah Al Saadi, an independent member of parliament, said that “the political conflict between the Dawa and other parties is the main obstacle for the weakening of the state’s security system”, pointing out that Al Maliki has entrusted the security ministries to people who do not question his decisions. He may be right.
Divisions within the opposition coalition dominated by the Iraqiya Party of Allawi are not helping either. Marginalised and excluded from power (Allawi and his allies claim they clearly won the last election in 2010, but Al Maliki robbed them of it through political subterfuge), they remain a confused lot, lacking in vision and political approach.
Allawi’s leadership itself remains largely ineffective and his frequent outbursts against Al Maliki sound more personal than political. Critics also accuse him of endlessly harping on his thesis that the Americans gifted Iraq to Iran (rather paradoxical considering the escalating confrontation between Washington and Tehran).
In the showdown between the dominant sectarian groups, Iraqi’s Islamist parties have kept a low profile. What frightens them? What scares their potential supporters? Is it their dismal failure in the expression of their Islamism? The conflict between the Islamist parties themselves may be bloody.
Even relatively secular groups like the Iraqi List (Al Qayima Al Iraqiya) have accused Al Maliki of governing like a dictator — a view echoed by his own Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Al Mutlaq, who was swiftly sacked. Al Mutlaq, a member of the Iraqiya bloc, said in an interview on Al Jazeera: “My advice to him [Al Maliki] is that he should leave his chair because he is the reason behind all that is happening in Iraq. Because he has turned into a real dictator in this country.”
Is Al Maliki really pushing Iraq towards a new dictatorship?
Unlikely, as today’s Iraq is not the same as the Iraq that allowed Saddam to steal political office. There is the popularly elected Parliament that has enough powers to pass a no-confidence motion against the government. Add to this the elections every four years. Today’s Iraq is full of different political forces, trends and conflicting programmes, each with a degree of influence, both on the street and in state institutions. And many of them have armed wings.
Is the time for dictatorship over in Iraq? Or is there the possibility of it coming back?
For the pessimist all the possibilities for the return of dictatorship in one form or another are visible on the horizon. The return of mindless bombings does not promise stability. The situation could get worse in 2012. The forces of terror and their supporters inside Iraq and outside are poised to stage a comeback if the democratically elected politicians do not put their sectarian differences aside and unite for the sake of the nation.
The “shock and awe” that Donald Rumsfeld (the then US defence secretary who was one of the main architects of the 2003 invasion) promised can yet come to haunt Iraqis. Only, this time it would be from within their country.
Shakir Noori is Iraqi author and journalist.