Iraqi Leader's Past Of Shiite Activism Undermines Pledge To Heal Rifts

January 3rd, 2007  
Team Infidel

Topic: Iraqi Leader's Past Of Shiite Activism Undermines Pledge To Heal Rifts

Wall Street Journal
January 2, 2007
Pg. 1

By Philip Shishkin
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- His only son was getting married on Friday, but the Iraqi prime minister couldn't stay long at the wedding. Nouri al-Maliki greeted the guests and then quickly left to make sure that when the sun rose over Baghdad again, his arch-nemesis Saddam Hussein would be dead.
Mr. Maliki wanted to leave nothing to chance. His mind raced through several scenarios, however improbable, that might have derailed the execution, says a close adviser who spoke with him. What if the Americans struck a secret deal sparing Mr. Hussein's life in exchange for a halt to attacks against U.S. troops? What if the former dictator's lawyers succeeded in blocking his hanging through U.S. courts? And finally, what if insurgents abducted a group of schoolchildren and threatened to kill them unless the hanging was canceled?
Mr. Maliki hurriedly gathered final signatures for the execution to proceed, dismissing U.S. suggestions that he delay it for 15 days. By the time Mr. Maliki awoke for dawn prayers on Saturday, Mr. Hussein was dead, his disfigured corpse displayed on television with rope marks on the neck.
For the 56-year-old Mr. Maliki, it was a crowning moment in a career defined by uncompromising hatred of everything Mr. Hussein had stood for. Now Mr. Maliki is supposed to rise above the sectarian chasm that has pitted Iraq's Sunni minority against his own Shiite branch of Islam. But as Iraq moves closer to full-scale civil war, a look at Mr. Maliki's history of Shiite activism suggests he is ill-prepared to be a true unifying figure. On his watch, Iraq has become further polarized along sectarian lines, significantly complicating the U.S. efforts to reduce the violence.
Things here started spinning out of control long before Mr. Maliki took office, and fissures have been hardening among political factions with narrow sectarian interests, sharply limiting Mr. Maliki's room to maneuver. "He's got the world's most difficult job," says Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
In a Dec. 24 interview, Mr. Maliki admitted he's exhausted, and would much rather serve his country without holding high office. "I wish I could be done with it," he says.
As the violence rages on, Mr. Maliki feels frustrated by his failings and by the gulf of mistrust that has opened between him and ordinary Iraqis, say his associates and colleagues. When his heavily armed convoy moves through Baghdad disrupting traffic, Mr. Maliki gets annoyed because it reminds him of Mr. Hussein's old motorcades.
Born near Babylon, Mr. Maliki studied religion and Arabic poetry. In the 1960s he joined the Dawa party, a moderate Shiite Islamist group whose members were targeted for torture and executions by Mr. Hussein's regime. Like many of his party colleagues, Mr. Maliki changed his first name -- from Nouri to Jawad, in his case -- to make it harder for authorities to identify him and his family.
Mr. Maliki briefly lived in the marshes of southern Iraq, hiding in crude shacks made of reeds and organizing resistance, says Hassan al-Sunaid, a longtime friend of the prime minister. Once, a Dawa camp came under attack by government forces. One member was killed and four were wounded. When Mr. Maliki arrived on the scene and was briefed on the casualties, he told supporters not to be depressed because all five could have perished. "We just gained four people," Mr. Sunaid recalls Mr. Maliki as saying. In 1979, Mr. Maliki moved to Syria, where he coordinated Iraqi opposition meetings and published a Dawa newspaper.
In 1982, Dawa helped organize a botched assassination attempt against Mr. Hussein, who responded by executing some 150 Shiite civilians. That massacre earned the former dictator his death penalty.
Following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Mr. Maliki returned to Baghdad and became one of the most enthusiastic enforcers of Washington's sweeping program to purge Iraq's institutions of Baath party members. Many, though not all, were Sunnis. That decision is now widely viewed as a mistake because it antagonized many Sunnis, particularly in the military, and pushed them into the insurgency.
Mr. Maliki's zeal for the program surprised even those who shared his distaste for the Baath party. Mithal al-Alusi, a former Sunni exile who worked under Mr. Maliki on the de-Baathification commission, says he once wanted to clear the names of some 400 low-level Baathists, who were forced to join the party under Saddam to keep their jobs. Facing objections from Mr. Maliki and some others, Mr. Alusi says he leaked the list to an Iraqi newspaper, after which the commission's hand was forced and the names were cleared. "Maliki was very upset about it," recalls Mr. Alusi. "He's allergic to Baathists." Mr. Maliki was concerned that these Baathists hadn't submitted proper applications for clearance, says Sami al-Askari, his friend and adviser.
Mr. Maliki and his close associates believe the Shiites finally assumed the rightful positions of leadership in Iraq, after decades under repressive Sunni rule. "The problem is that our Sunni brothers ruled Iraq for centuries because there was no democracy, no elections," Mr. Maliki said in the interview. "Therefore, they feel that a right has been taken away from them."
The Sunni-Shia split dates to the battles at the dawn of Islam over who should succeed the Prophet Muhammed as the leader of the Muslim world. Eventually, the Sunnis gained the upper hand throughout most of the Middle East, with the notable exception of Iraq's neighbor Iran.
Preserving the new Iraq as a Shia-controlled state is an indispensable ideological consideration for the latest crop of Shiite leaders, who still recall a missed opportunity back in 1920. After an armed uprising against the British colonial rule back then, Shiite sheiks withdrew from politics and paved the way for the ascendancy of the Sunni minority that lasted until 2003.
"The current leaders learned that lesson very well," says Sadiq al-Rikabi, the prime minister's political adviser. Mr. Maliki has a personal connection to the events of 1920: His grandfather was a cleric who took part in the uprising, wrote national-liberation poetry and was detained by the British several times. Mr. Maliki went on to write his master's thesis on his forebear, whose verses he can recite from memory.
After 2003, the Sunnis themselves withdrew from politics and allowed the Shiites and Kurds to form a government without them. Security forces took on a Shiite tint, and Sunnis began to complain of sectarian death squads allegedly operating with the complicity of the interior ministry.
From his seat in parliament, Mr. Maliki was lobbying for more Shiite influence in the relatively nonsectarian Iraqi army.
In 2005, he approached the Sunni minister of defense with a request to hire more senior Shiite officers -- a move that many Sunnis now cast as sectarian meddling. In the end, the defense minister ignored the request, according to people familiar with the episode.
The Sunnis ended their boycott of politics in December 2005 and won seats in the new parliament, though the Shiites still maintained a majority. Banding together with ethnic Kurds, the Sunnis engineered the ouster of the Shiite prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, whom they viewed as inefficient. As a senior Dawa official, Mr. Maliki emerged as the Shiite coalition's second choice for prime minister, though most Iraqis didn't know anything about him. Mr. Maliki never coveted the post and decided to take it only after his Shiite colleagues spent days persuading him to step in, he and others involved in the selection say. "That decision for me was heavier than a mountain," Mr. Maliki recalls, stooping his shoulders under its imaginary weight.
Upon taking office, Mr. Maliki surrounded himself with trusted Shiite advisers, most of whom hail from the same exile underground that shaped him. Then he pledged to reach out to the Sunni insurgent groups and former Baathists, the very people he worked hard to isolate before becoming prime minister. "Yes, he was very tough against Baathists, but now he's ready for dialogue with some of them," says Mr. al-Askari. "Some people were surprised by this."

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