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Hopes, fears and the way ahead from Nouri al-Maliki with toughest job in Iraq

It would be a grave mistake to judge Nouri al-Maliki on first appearances. The Iraqi leader may wear a pinstripe suit and tie, have gold-rimmed spectacles and project the sober, serious appearance of a bank manager, but nobody in this chaotic and violent country is in any doubt that the 58-year-old is the man in charge. Some speak of him as Iraq’s salvation, others complain that he is too authoritarian. Nobody in politics ignores him. “I never enjoy it,” the Iraqi leader toldThe Times, with a dismissive shake of the head, complaining about probably the toughest job in the Middle East. He insisted that he never chose to be Prime Minister and will not seek reelection next year unless he is asked to serve another term.

Those who have seen him perform are convinced that he will still be at Iraq’s helm for some time to come. When he was selected as a compromise candidate two and a half years ago, no one would have rated his chances of success. He was a largely unknown quantity, some suspected that he did not have the physical stamina nor the political muscle to survive the treacherous world of Iraqi politics, then in the grip of a vicious sectarian war. But he has proved his detractors wrong.

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In his first year he signed the execution order for his nemesis Saddam Hussein, a move many feared would plunge the country into even greater violence. Mr al-Maliki, who had to flee Iraq in 1980 to escape a death sentence passed against him by Saddam, insisted that it was nothing personal. He was simply doing his job after a court found the former Iraqi dictator guilty of mass murder and the appeals process was exhausted.

A PBS television documentary broadcast in America last night claimed that Mr al-Maliki deliberately forced the resignation of one of the five judges trying the case and replaced him with someone more likely to convict the former Iraqi dictator and pass the death sentence.

Mr al-Maliki scoffed at the suggestion. He denied interfering in the judicial process and said that he had no idea how the tribunal would rule until it announced its verdict. He added that he did regret the manner in which the execution was conducted, with Saddam tormented by his executioners who chanted Shia Muslim slogans as the noose was placed around his neck on the gallows.

“What happened after the execution should not have happened. But these are people who did not have any experience in carrying out executions,” he said. “This was a speciality of the Baath Party. His men were good at executing people.”

With the old Baath leadership in jail or dead, Mr al-Maliki then took on what seemed at the time the impossible task of defeating the insurgency and the militias, in a series of stunning victories coordinated with the surge of American troops. First he gambled his career on an improbable assault on Basra – in those days a city at the mercy of Shia gunmen and a no-go area for British troops hunkered down at the city airport.

In the space of a few days he succeeded in taking back control of the southern capital. He repeated the mission in Baghdad’s notorious Sadr City. Today the nearly 600,000 Iraqi police and soldiers under his command provide the bulk of security in this country for the first time since the USled invasion five-and-a-half years ago.

Seated in his temporary office, Mr al-Maliki is now planning the next stage in Iraq’s rehabilitation. First he has to negotiate the gradual withdrawal of US and British forces, then navigate through provincial elections next year and finally begin the mammoth task of trying to turn a country ravaged by three decades of war into a modern state. The challenge is fraught with pitfalls. He wants US forces to remain until 2011, providing air power, training and back-up for his fledgeling forces. But getting political support for the move is hugely controversial, particularly among his Shia brethren. Many are linked to Iran, which wants all US troops out as soon as possible. Others, including, one suspects, Mr al-Maliki himself, are Iraqi nationalists who want foreign forces off their land. If they are to stay, Mr al-Maliki wants foreign troops accountable to Iraqi law if they commit a crime.

In a telling anecdote, he explained that his grandfather had fought the British occupation of Iraq after the First World War. “He was jailed twice [by the British],” Mr al-Maliki recalled. “He wrote important poetry about Britain, criticising British policy.” The Prime Minister certainly made it clear that he would not be sad to see the withdrawal of the present British force from southern Iraq.

The Iraqi leader is also clearly concerned about the long-simmering power struggle for control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk between its Kurdish, Turkoman and Arab populations. Now that security is being restored to other areas of the country the issue can be ignored no longer.

“Kirkuk is a city that belongs to the federal Government and is outside the boundaries of the Kurdish region. Kirkuk will not be solved by using force to impose a solution . . . The only suitable solution is to treat it as a special case, like being an independent region,” he said. The only obvious bright spot on his political horizon is the hugely symbolic handover due to take place in the heart of Baghdad by the end of the year. The US Embassy, currently housed in Saddam’s ornate old presidential palace, is moving to a new compound and Mr al-Maliki will take over the building. He will also take steps to dismantle the green zone, the heavily fortified area in central Baghdad that houses the American and British embassies and many government offices and residences.

“Keeping a green zone in Iraq and a red zone in Iraq is finished,” Mr al-Maliki declared. “The whole of Baghdad must be green.”



Filed under: Iraq, Islamic countries, Middle East,

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