By Sarah Johnstone, Assistant editor, Online

As ‘Genghis Khan with a telephone’ in the 1930s, Joseph Stalin routinely picked up the receiver late at night to issue instructions that led to the imprisonment or execution of millions. Author Toby Dodge probably wouldn’t compare current Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to the brutal Soviet leader; at the launch of his new book last week he steered away from describing Maliki as despotic as former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Nonetheless, Dodge’s portrayal of the Iraqi premier is of a man with ‘clear dictatorial ambitions’ who understands the utility of the telephone.

Dodge’s just-released Iraq: From War to a New Authoritarianism recounts how the PM’s office in Baghdad has subverted the military chain of command, directly ‘ringing up mid-ranking officers and issuing orders to them on their mobile phones’. It is one of the methods by which an initially unremarkable, ‘grey’ politician has managed to centralise power in the weak office of the Iraqi prime minister since his appointment in early 2006.

The US-led invasion of Iraq a decade ago in March was designed to remove Saddam’s repressive regime. But instead of creating the model democracy the invasion’s architects dreamed of, Western military intervention has been followed by the rise of another authoritarian leader backed by a powerful security apparatus.

The cost has been huge of coming almost full circle like this, raising yet more ‘profound questions’ about the entire Iraq endeavour. Some 4,500 US military personnel have died; the Iraq Body Count project estimates that 110,000 to 130,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed; and $200 billion has been spent on reconstruction.

Most of that has been devoted to rebuilding Iraq’s army, Dodge warned, and the civilian capacity of the state remained ‘woefully adequate’. The military now employed 930,000 people, or 8% of the national workforce. At the same time, one-quarter of the population had no access to clean running water and the average household only enjoyed seven-and-a-half hours of electricity a day (‘a living hell’ in the ‘burning hot heat’ of summer in Baghdad or Basra).

Dodge, a leading Iraq expert, sketched out how this situation had arisen, with US administrators keen on building up security to prevent any rerun of the civil war that overwhelmed Iraq in 2006–07, and Maliki gradually accruing more power while rival politicians were distracted by infighting. Maliki built up a small, cohesive group of functionaries, known as the ‘Malikiyoun’ in Iraq, placing these friends, loyalists and family members in key government positions. He also brought key institutions under the control of his office, including 4,500 crack, US-trained special forces which are now nicknamed the ‘Fedayeen al-Maliki’ and treated as his personal army.

Dodge described the Charge of the Knights offensive in Basra in 2008 as a pivotal moment, when Maliki won widespread popular support for sending Iraqi Army battalions to seize control of Basra from Shia militias, including Moqtada al-Sadr’s Shia Mahdi army. After this, Maliki was seen as a nationalist strongman, ‘saving Iraq from civil war’.

This popularity seems to have emboldened Maliki, and when his new State of Law coalition unexpectedly and narrowly lost the 2010 national elections to Iyad al-Allawi’s Iraqiyya Sunni coalition, by 89 to 91 seats, he refused to step aside and ordered a recount ‘to prevent a return to violence’. By now, it had started to dawn on rival politicians how much power Maliki had consolidated in his own hands. The Erbil Agreement that formed a national government of unity after months of painstaking negotiations allowed him to stay on as prime minister but set limits on his power – which Maliki then proceeded to ignore.

While the agreement forbade him from installing allies in either the Ministry of Defence or the Interior, he nominated a very close friend to the Ministry of National Security. He also used an increasingly powerful judiciary to bring previously independent institutions such as the central bank, human-rights commissions and electoral commission under cabinet, rather than parliamentary, control.

In April 2012, the head of the Independent High Electoral Commission – ‘the very man who Nuri al-Maliki blamed for his electoral defeat’ – was arrested and held in jail for three days on minor corruption charges. ‘On his second day in jail’, Dodge reports, ‘this man was rung up on his mobile phone by no-one else but Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who said “Oh your arrest has nothing to do with me. I’ll see if we can get you out as soon as possible” – in a clear attempt to [put] that man’s freedom in Nuri al-Maliki’s gift.’

In October 2012, an arrest warrant was issued for the respected head of the central bank, Shinan al-Shabibi. Shabibi was then sacked in what many considered a politically motivated move.

Answering questions from the audience, Dodge touched on the fate of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq, Iranian influence on Baghdad, potential spillover from the civil war in neighbouring Syria, and Iraq’s recent decision to purchase arms from Russia to complement its US arsenal. He had little positive to say, save that Iraq’s powerful security services would probably prevent the country from descending into full-scale civil war again. He doubted that recent public protests against Maliki would develop into an Arab Spring-style uprising against the PM’s authoritarian tendencies.

Meanwhile, sectarian politics were back in fashion, with the Shia Muslim PM – who once branded himself more as a nationalist politician – ‘using coded sectarian language to seek to solidify his electoral amongst Iraqi Shias’ and ‘picking off his rivals’.

On the day after the last American troops left Iraq in December 2011, an arrest warrant was issued for Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi (who has since been sentenced to death in absentia after taking refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan and then Turkey).

In December 2012 there was a repeat, when security forces raided the house of Iraq’s minister of finance, Rafie al-Issawi, arresting at least ten of his bodyguards on terrorism charges and seeking to take Issawi himself into custody. Issawi, a Sunni Muslim and one of the most powerful members of Iraqiyya, later told reporters that he rang Maliki to ask who had authorised the ‘illegal action’.

On this occasion, the Iraqi prime minister refused to pick up the phone.

Watch Toby Dodge launch this Adelphi book

Buy ‘Iraq: From War to a New Authoritarianism’

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