Wall Street Journal
January 2, 2007
Pg. 1

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

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."

Even Ansar al-Sunna, one of the toughest insurgent groups in the country, has been approached and has sent in a list of "requirements for negotiation," says Mowaffak al-Rubaie, the prime minister's national security adviser. Yet, there are no signs that reconciliation is working. In early December, Ansar al-Sunna plastered several Baghdad universities with leaflets attacking Mr. Maliki's government and blaming it for killing Sunnis.

"This reconciliation came very late, three years late or at least two," says Mahmoud Othman, a veteran Kurdish politician. The Kurds, most of whom live in their peaceful northern region, have largely sat out the conflict between Iraq's Sunni and Shiite Arabs.

The prime minister says reconciliation is still possible. "It is not only about slogans; it is a matter of will," he says, adding that he's working on establishing a retirement plan for some former Baathists and senior officers of the old army.

Another huge challenge facing Mr. Maliki is the rising power of Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite strongman whose parliamentary votes were critical for his nomination as prime minister. Mr. Sadr's militia, the Mehdi army, is accused of conducting sectarian attacks against Sunnis and driving them out of mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad. (Mr. Sadr's advisers deny this.) In February, three months before Mr. Maliki ascended to Iraq's top post, Sunni insurgents destroyed a landmark Shiite shrine in Samarra, and the Mehdi army quickly emerged as a vigilante Shiite self-defense force and one of the most intractable players in the escalating violence. Mr. Maliki promised to tackle militias, but instead he has chosen to seek a political accommodation with Mr. Sadr, fearful that direct military action would alienate him.

In October, Mr. Maliki told the U.S. military to remove roadblocks surrounding Sadr City, a massive Shiite district of Baghdad that serves as a base of operations for the Mehdi army. The checkpoints had gone up just a week earlier to facilitate the search for a kidnapped American soldier of Iraqi descent who was reportedly held somewhere in the sprawling slum of some two million residents.

Shiites "thought it was a big victory," says Lt. Col. Steve Miska, a U.S. Army officer stationed in Baghdad. "The prime minister forced the coalition to stand down." The Sunnis were baffled by the decision, interpreting it as Mr. Maliki's coddling of the Mehdi army. "The roadblocks were put in to destroy the gangsters," says Saleem Abdullah of the Iraqi Islamic Party, one of the biggest Sunni political organizations. "When they were lifted, that plan was ruined."

Mr. Maliki thought the roadblocks were simply ineffective, snarling traffic and disrupting daily lives of the mostly poor Sadr City residents. "He felt that people are suffocating there," says Mr. Rubaie, his national-security adviser. "And these are the same measures Saddam used against the Shia in that slum."

Mr. Maliki has also blocked some American efforts to arrest Mehdi army operatives. Once, he was given a list of 10 people whom the U.S. military wanted to detain in Sadr City. The prime minister vetoed arresting one person because that would be politically sensitive, Mr. Rubaie recalls. Mr. Maliki, he adds, is committed to wiping out the rogue Mehdi army forces who are involved in sectarian attacks, but he wants to engage moderate elements in dialogue.

Mr. Maliki says the rise of the Shiite militias was a natural defensive reaction to the Samarra shrine bombing, but they have since become a danger to the integrity of the state. "We will continue confronting them with force and we'll work on winning over some militiamen to our side," he says.

Many Sunni leaders, though, suspect a conspiracy: "Maliki knows that the Mehdi army can destroy Sunnis, that's why he doesn't disarm them," says Adnan al-Dulaimi, a hard-line Sunni member of parliament. Last year, a guard on Mr. Dulaimi's private-security detail was detained by the Americans on suspicion of plotting bombing attacks. Though Mr. Dulaimi himself wasn't implicated, the Shiites pounced on the arrest as a sign of some Sunni politicians' complicity in terrorism.

That underlies a broader Shiite perception that the decision to share power with the Sunnis after 2005 elections may have been a mistake because the Sunni insurgency has only grown stronger. In late November, several car bombs killed more than 200 Shiites inside Sadr City, the bloodiest attack since the U.S.-led invasion. When Mr. Maliki recently went for a visit there, his convoy was pelted with rocks.

His allies and some opponents describe him as a man with a common touch and none of the haughtiness that often comes with high office. His days begin at the crack of dawn when he wakes up to pray, and they often last past midnight. To unwind, he reads Arabic poetry and can recite many verses from memory, including his own grandfather's work. He writes his own poems, but these days, he says, "only very little because I don't have time." He's been known to personally grab and wipe a dusty chair for a visitor, and he's vetoed government appointments at the slightest hint of corruption in a candidate.

In the recent interview, Mr. Maliki sat under a huge Iraqi flag and reminisced about his life, shaped by the fight against Mr. Hussein. "I'm still fighting Baathists," he said, quickly adding: "But not all Baathists, only those who have the attitude of Saddam."

Excerpts From Nouri al-Maliki Interview

Nouri al-Maliki, through a translator, spoke with The Wall Street Journal on Dec. 24 in his Baghdad office. Here are some excerpts from the interview:

The Wall Street Journal: You have repeatedly said that you don't have enough authority over Iraq's security forces. How does that affect your ability to control the security situation?

Nouri al-Maliki: What is happening in Iraq is a war of gangs and a terrorist war. That is why it needs to be confronted with strong force and with fast reaction. We need to change the equation in such a way that it is the state that's attacking the terrorists and the terrorists are retreating. For this to happen the commander in chief (of Iraqi armed forces) needs to have in his hands the authority to move forces around. Because the way the Iraqi army and the (U.S.-led) multinational forces operate now is very slow in taking a decision to react. This gives the terrorists a chance to hit and run. And I think the Iraqis themselves must be the ones who fight terrorists and militias because the Iraqis know better how to pursue them. That's why we need command and control over the Iraqi forces and we also need troops at a high level of training and equipment. That is what we agreed upon with President Bush. The security plan we are working on now is based on these concepts and we have it will achieve good results.

WSJ: Tell us more about your national-reconciliation initiative. Which groups do you propose to include in it, and is there any sign of progress?

Mr. Maliki: I fully understand that reconciliation is a complicated process because it is not only about slogans, it is a matter of will. Reconciliation is a concept based on the principle of recognizing the legitimacy of the state, the constitution and the elections. Those who oppose the political process and whose opposition is driven by sectarian motives don't want to recognize what Iraqis have achieved since the fall of the old regime. They are divided into two groups. The first group has accepted the results of the political process, and the other group is still in opposition. At the front of this group are Saddamists and al-Qaeda and the followers of al-Qaeda. That's why I consider reconciliation to be the most effective way in dealing with the crisis gripping the country now. I think the political field that believes in reconciliation is growing wider and wider. What is happening on the streets is driven by gangs and by forces that don't recognize the value of reconciliation. The groups that we want to see inside the political process have some demands. We have to find solutions to some problems, such as the issue of the old (disbanded) army, of senior officers and of Baath party members and the issue of giving pensions to those members who deserve. There are a number of issues that we are working on.

WSJ: Many observers inside and outside Iraq say the civil war has already started. How can politicians, both Shia and Sunni, prevent further violence?

Mr. Maliki: We can't deny that some killing is happening with sectarian motives. They are carried out by ignorant people, sometimes by the gangs of the previous regime, to ignite the sectarian conflict. But the majority of the Iraqi people and political leaders, both Sunni and Shia, reject civil war. They are still trying in different ways to prevent it from happening. It would be a dirty war, and everyone is afraid of it. We still have safeguards to prevent civil war. There's no civil war as some might say, because the cabinet has both Sunnis and Shias, the parliament has both Sunnis and Shia working together. What happens is a political conflict between various forces, including the Baath party, that want to give this conflict a sectarian flavor in order to make things look like civil war.

WSJ: Sunni leaders have criticized your government for not disarming Shiite militias. What is your strategy for dealing with these militias?

Mr. Maliki: Since the first day I had this job, I held a strong opinion that militias shouldn't exist. Militias grew as a reaction to terrorist attacks, specifically to the attacks against the (Shiite) shrine in Samarra. But they have become a danger to the integrity of the state. I believe the state has the monopoly on armed force and on providing security. I also believe militias have become a safe haven for gangster and outlaws and those who want to sabotage the state. There are difficulties (in disarming militias), but I will continue to confront these difficulties. Sunni leaders want me to disband militias with a political declaration. If militias can be disbanded this way, I have already made many declarations. These things require some preparation, and we need pressure. I've reached a point where I've given orders to Iraqi armed force to attack any outlaws whether they are militias or others. We will continue confronting them with force in addition to other measures aimed at absorbing militia members. Shiite are concerned by terrorist attacks against civilians -- large numbers of them have been killed by the insurgents. But retaliation has to be the responsibility of the government, and not for (militias) to react. Moderate Sunnis and Shias must agree on a front against terrorism because terrorism kills both Shiites and Sunnis.

WSJ: Do you think that Iraq's Sunni neighbors have accepted the reality of Iraq becoming a Shiite-led country after decades of Sunni rule?

Mr. Maliki: They have not. They don't want to accept this fact. Iraq isn't governed only by the Shiites, power is shared. This is the result of democracy. The problem is that our Sunni brothers have been governing Iraq centuries, and since the establishment of Iraq as a state they have been governing because there was no democracy, no elections. Therefore, they feel that a right has been taken away from them. They are our brothers and partners and we value their partnership. And we want to establish a country where Sunnis and Shias, Muslims and Christians, Arabs and Kurds, all live together. Our policy is different from the mentality (of the old regime) that wanted a minority to remain in power. Democracy has produced the current situation. Tomorrow, it might produce a different result. The Sunnis have to abide by the results of democracy because we can't go back to the past.

WSJ: What do you consider as the most difficult moment in your time as prime minister?

Mr. Maliki: The seven months were all difficult. I can't really pick the single most difficult decision, they were all difficult. And this difficulty arises from the disharmony inside the political entities that run the country. But maybe the most difficult decision is when there was an agreement for me to become prime minister. That decision for me was heavier than a mountain because I didn't want to take this position. I only agreed because I thought it would serve the national interest, and I will not accept it again.

WSJ: Will you accept a second term if it's offered to you?

Mr. Maliki: Impossible. I wish I could be done with it even before the end of this term. I would like to serve my people from outside the circle of senior officials, maybe through the parliament, or through working directly with the people.

WSJ: Do you have hope there will be peace in Iraq in your lifetime?

Mr. Maliki: Yes, I have a strong hope. If I didn't have hope, I wouldn't be here today.