Monday, November 24, 2008

A Benevolent Saddam?

The LA Times reports on the emerging reality that Nouri Maliki is accumulating more and more power in the Iraqi Prime Minister’s Office, yielding a growing influence over both Iraqi security forces and the largely defunct central government bureaucracy in Baghdad.

An increasingly bold Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has sanctioned politically charged arrests of prominent Sunnis, personally supervised military operations and moved to sideline rivals in recent months, actions that have evoked memories of the country's authoritarian past. Now the Shiite leader, once considered weak and ineffectual, is on the cusp of greater powers with the likely approval this week of a security agreement with the U.S. that would anoint him as the man who brought an end to the American troop presence in Iraq.

That has left Sunni Arab, Kurdish and even some Shiite parties nervous about their future after the Americans are gone. Maliki's defenders say the prime minister, who comes from a fiercely nationalist background, is trying to prevent the breakup of Iraq by establishing a strong central government. Detractors, including several Iraqi politicians and at least one Western official, suspect him of having ambitions to become "a benevolent Shiite Saddam."

By increasingly exerting authority, Maliki has broken from the model of a severely constrained central government championed by the Americans since they ousted longtime President Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003. Under the U.S.-promoted model, Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds were to share power in Baghdad, and Iraqi regions dominated by each of the groups were to be guaranteed clear protections.

"In some ways, we are seeing a return to traditional Iraqi political culture, where authority is centralized in the person of the leader in Baghdad," said a U.S. official, who asked not to be identified because of the subject's sensitivity. "That is the way Iraq has been run for decades prior to the American intervention in 2003. "It's too early to say if a democratic state can emerge out of all this. It's messy and it's not going to get better any time soon, at least. It may become more violent."

…Such measures have many Iraqi and Western officials debating Maliki's true intentions. They describe a man of contradictions -- incredibly modest, solicitous to friends, but deeply suspicious of the Americans, and given to rants about the Sunni-dominated Baath Party leaders that ruled under Hussein. Maliki, steeped in the ferment of the revolutionary Shiite Islamic groups that shaped him, feels an intense need to defend Iraq's Shiite majority and preserve its newfound power, they say.

Maliki has firmly rebutted the idea that a strong prime minister equals a return to Hussein's time. This month, Maliki defended his government's assertive role. Otherwise, he said, "things would have slipped away." He went on to warn that if too much power was ceded to regional governments, as envisioned by the Kurds and his party's competitor within the Shiite bloc, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the country could end up "with multiple central governments and dictatorships." The prime minister urged instead that the constitution be revised to strengthen the national government.

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