The decision of Wikileaks to publish in unredacted form some 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables has deservedly attracted condemnation for compromising the safety of many of those individuals named in the files. However, a great deal that is useful can be garnered from the information disclosed. A substantial amount of the documents involve Iraq, and illustrate how Iraqi politicians have consistently held themselves above the law and basic standards of accountability.
One notable case that has come to light from these cables involves the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. On April 3, 2003, as Saddam Hussein’s regime was on the point of falling, the moderate and non-sectarian Shiite cleric Abdul Majid al-Khoei, who had been in exile in the United Kingdom, returned to his home city of Najaf. Just one week later, Khoei was beaten and hacked to death by a mob. According to witnesses, he was first dragged to Sadr’s office and then to a nearby roundabout where he was killed.
Although Sadr denies accusations of involvement in the atrocity, a senior Iraqi judge, Raed al-Juhi, issued an arrest warrant against him in April 2004, on suspicion of ordering Khoei’s murder. One can of course ask why Sadr does not simply go to court if he is so confident of his innocence. In fact, there is a plausible motive for his role in the murder. As Hayder al-Khoei, Abdul Majid’s son and a researcher at the Centre for Academic Shi’a Studies in the United Kingdom, has pointed out, Sadr and his followers, whom Hayder’s father opposed, wanted to assert themselves as a political force in post-Saddam Iraq.
Today, it can be more easily understood why Sadr is not held to account over the arrest warrant. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki depends on the Sadrists as allies, along with the Kurdish factions, to maintain his coalition government in place. However, until the release of the diplomatic cables it remained unclear why the arrest warrant was not enforced during the tenure of the non-sectarian Iyad Allawi. He was interim prime minister before Iraq’s elections of 2005.
It turns out, as a cable from July 2004 shows, that leading Shiite politicians, including senior members of Al-Daawa and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, asked Allawi to suspend the arrest warrant and legal case against Sadr until the elections were completed. In return, Sadr would evacuate militiamen of his Mahdi Army from Kufa and Najaf. Allawi was initially skeptical but eventually caved in, although Sadr never kept his end of the bargain.
The petition was ultimately a ploy that Shiite politicians with sectarian agenda used to allow Sadr to avoid the arrest warrant. The knew that the Shiite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, would secure a majority of seats in parliament thanks to the Sunni Arab boycott of the elections. This led to the election of the Shiite Islamist Ibrahim Jaafari as prime minister, until he was ousted in 2006 in favor of Maliki.
During the sectarian civil conflict that was centered on Baghdad in 2006, Maliki actively protected the Mehdi Army in its fight against the Sunni insurgents, and in its successful ethnic cleansing of Sunnis from mixed neighborhoods. This development ultimately convinced most Sunni Arabs in 2007 that they could no longer fight both the government and the American-led coalition forces. This realization led to a rapid decline in violence, which was not, as conventional wisdom has it, the result of an increase in U.S. troops as part of the surge.
Nonetheless, reckless disregard for the rule of law does not solely afflict Shiite parties. It extends very clearly to the Sunni side as well. In September 2004, Mithal al-Alusi, a secular Sunni politician and businessman, visited Israel. Incensed by the trip, Asad al-Hashimi, a Sunni who went on to become culture minister, was behind an assassination attempt on Alusi in February 2005, in which the latter lost his two sons. In June 2007, an arrest warrant was issued against Hashimi. When police raided his home, Sunni politicians asked the Shiite-dominated government to drop the case against him. The Sunni Iraqi Accord Front, to which Hashimi belonged, suspended its participation in the government, but Maliki did not drop the case. Sentenced to death in absentia, Hashimi fled Iraq.
Highlighting the problems, there is ongoing deadlock in a debate between Iraq’s Integrity Commission, an independent commission set up to investigate corruption, and Maliki on prosecuting officials suspected of using fake qualifications to obtain government jobs. The prime minister wants lower-rank officials to be exempt from prosecution, while the commission affirms, rightly, its desire to prosecute suspects at all levels. One reason Maliki has pushed for a compromise is because his Al-Daawa party is no less guilty than others of using forged papers. At present, 37 officials in the prime minister’s office are thought to have used fake diplomas to gain their positions.
As a direct consequence of Maliki’s obstinacy and other forms of political interference in the anti-corruption agency’s work, the head of the Integrity Commission, Rahim Hassan al-Uqailei, has resigned.
Sadly, all this confirms the upshot of Freedom House’s assessment of Iraq as a country that is “not free,” where genuine electoral democracy is absent. True, generally free and fair elections have been conducted at the provincial and national levels, but sectarianism, corruption, excessive bureaucracy, and lack of respect for the rule of law all impede democratic decision-making.
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and an intern at the Middle East Forum. His website is www.aymennjawad.org, and he can be reached by email at email@example.com. The author would like to thank Hayder al-Khoei for drawing to his attention the June 2004 Wikileaks cable. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.