Empire of Fear: Inside the Islamic State (2015)
Driving anywhere in Baghdad is mind-numbingly slow and fraught with danger. There is the ever-present risk of kidnapping or being caught up in a bombing. As a Westerner, you need to take security men with you wherever you go and you often have to travel in armoured vehicles for even the simplest of trips outside. There are so many neighbourhoods you cannot go to because of the security risk, and from 2014 onwards, there was always the chance of running into Islamic State militants if you did manage to get out of the capital. The traffic often turns into a turgid metallic sludge at the city’s many checkpoints, made even worse by the heat and pollution and the realization that if IS bombers decided to strike your particular military post, you would not stand a chance.
At the checkpoints you will often see bored-looking soldiers and police using bomb detectors, walking up and down the side of your car holding this curious black gadget like a gun; but instead of a muzzle, it has some kind of weird wand-like antenna waggling from side to side. As the policemen walk alongside you they point the thing towards the ground and read the meter on the back of the device. Sadly, though, the gadgets are utterly useless; the real purpose of the detectors was not to save lives but to make money – and lots of it – for the crooks who sold them and the crooks who bought them.
It has been established beyond any doubt that all the bomb detectors are fake and that they were sold to Iraq by unscrupulous fraudsters who have been convicted and jailed for their part in a crime of astounding greed and breathtaking cynicism. Incredibly, though, the Iraqi interior ministry still insisted on using them for years afterwards. On a trip to Baghdad in late 2014, I raised the issue with Brigadier General Saad Maan, the ministry’s main spokesman and the same man who assured the world a few months earlier that it was ‘indisputably not’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at the mosque in Mosul when it was.1 The interview took on a somewhat surreal quality.
Andrew Hosken: Why are you still using this fraudulent piece of kit?
Brigadier General Saad Maan: Actually we do not depend on this ADE [Advanced Detection Equipment] detector 100 per cent; we have dogs and hand searches, as well as X-ray vehicles, and in the coming weeks we have some contracts with some companies which specialize in this technology. By the end of the year we will have this new equipment, which will work on the street. Then we will replace these detectors.
AH: Why are you using the detectors at all if they don’t work?
SM: Really, frankly, it works let’s say thirty to forty percent because—
AH: But there’s nothing in them. There is no technology within them.
SM: No, really, I’m talking practically. If you take the recent attack on al Kadhimiya [Baghdad], all of the attacks were on the first security filters at al-Kadhimiya. All the time the victims are the people who are using the detectors...This process will force the suicide bomber to detonate his car on the first filter [of security] and this means logically that this filter is working. And we capture so many vehicles by the using of this detector. I’m not saying it’s ideal and yes, there has been some kind of corruption involved with this at least, but we are practical and we have this instrument right now; we must use it for at least for this while. When we can replace it with a new instrument – we will.2
General Maan is widely considered to be an intelligent and decent guy with an impossible job to do in the circumstances but I wondered how on earth he could possibly believe that the fake detectors worked because the very sight of them forced the suicide bomber to panic and detonate his device, obliterating the first line of defence but hopefully no one else. Did he seriously believe that the news of the fake detectors had yet to reach Baghdadi and his suicide bombers?
As a senior official of Iraq’s troubled interior ministry General Maan knows better than most that the detectors, although useless at detecting bombs, have at least exposed some dark corners of Iraqi public life and government. Corruption combined with sectarianism, Shia versus Sunni, helped create the perfect conditions for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; this toxic mix proved to be the decisive factor in his success of 2014 and, in particular, his shocking capture of Iraq’s second-biggest city, Mosul, in June of that year. Corruption and sectarianism together have proved to be the foundation stone of his caliphate.
Caroline Hawley, the former BBC Baghdad correspondent, and her producer colleague Meirion Jones, helped expose the scandal. Hawley had long concluded that Iraq was riddled with corruption. She said:
At one point we were on the tarmac at Baghdad airport for a last security check; you had to check your bags on the tarmac before they went into the hold and even then we had to pay a bribe to someone to get our bags onto the plane. I just thought the corruption is absolutely everywhere and at every level. I remember thinking, ‘How could people believe in a national project?’ It was so corrosive and it definitely played a part in why the Iraqi army ended up in the state it was.3
Hawley and Jones focused on the so-called ‘Advanced Detection Equipment’, the ‘ADE-651 detector’ produced by a British conman called James McCormick, based in Somerset. Incredibly, this former police officer, with no experience in either electronics or electrical engineering, managed to sell more than six thousand of his useless fake gadgets4 for up to an eye-watering $40,000 apiece to the Iraqi government, a total of $85 million.5 Hawley added:
The idea came from the so-called ‘Amazing Golf Ball Finder’. You can look it up on Amazon and it doesn’t even get a good review as a golf ball finder! But for his first ones, McCormick just got hold of these things and put his own labels on them. The ADE-651 was supposed to be the top-of-the-range model with all the bells and whistles, with the card reader, and that was the one he sold in such quantities. Somehow we got hold of someone in one of the companies who gave us the card that you slot into the ADE-651 and that will magically track your substance or explosive material. We had it taken apart by experts and there was nothing in it except for a cheap anti-theft tag that would have cost a couple of pence.
When it went to trial McCormick kept claiming that we had prejudiced the jury by claiming that this thing had cost lives. He could never have done what he did had Iraq not been so astonishingly corrupt.6
Following Hawley’s reports, the UK government swiftly banned the export of the gadgets and McCormick was arrested. At his criminal trial in London, it was revealed that McCormick had indeed based the gadgets on novelty golf ball detectors from the US, which he had bought for less than $20 each. No one will ever know how many Iraqi lives were destroyed by McCormick as a result of what the trial judge Mr Justice Hone had described as a ‘callous confidence trick’ that had ‘promoted a false sense of security and in all probability materially contributed to causing death and injury to innocent individuals’. McCormick was jailed for ten years.7
The Iraqi general who bought the batch of ADE-651s was the unfortunately named Jihad al-Jabiri, a senior official with the Iraqi interior ministry, which controls the police. Jabiri was arrested in February 2011,8 and the following year was jailed for four and a half years. He was far from being an exception. In 2005, for example, in an unrelated matter, Iraq issued arrest warrants for the then defence minister, Hazim al-Shaalan, and twenty-six other government officials on charges of embezzling a total of $1 billion.9 Investigators described the corruption in the ministry of defence as ‘staggering’.10 In one case they discovered that the ministry had been billed around $1 million for military uniforms that had actually been a gift from a donor country.11 Shaalan denied the allegations but took the precaution of leaving Iraq and was convicted in 2007 in absentia.
Iraq is one of the most corrupt nations on earth; in fact, according to the experts at the anti-corruption organization Transparency International, only five countries suffer more from the scourge of bribery, fraud and wholesale plundering of the public sector.12 It seeps into every aspect of Iraqi public life but most obviously and most dangerously into the army and police. Over the years, it has hollowed out Iraq, destroyed its army and left it horribly vulnerable to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his jihadis. It has also had a deadly effect on the deeply troubled relations between the Sunni minority and Shia majority.
Corruption in the army went hand in hand with sectarian cronyism that saw predominantly Shia senior politicians hand out important military jobs to fellow Shias regardless of merit. Iraq has been a country where military positions have been for sale. A highly critical report by respected US-based experts in December 2013 complained that the army and police suffered from ‘political interference in command positions, the sale of other positions at every level and other forms of corruption’.13 A further report stated that corruption was endemic ‘throughout much of the Iraq military and police with appointments and promotions being openly sold or awarded on the basis of nepotism, ethnic and sectarian ties, and political influence’.14 Meanwhile, according to the United Nations, twenty percent of Iraqis were unemployed and twenty-three percent lived in ‘absolute poverty’.15
Bribes of $5,000 were demanded for a place at the Officer Training Academy; the price of a promotion to general was $30,000.16At one point in 2008, the government’s overwhelmed anti-corruption unit was dealing with 736 cases of corruption just involving the interior ministry.17 The Iraqi government would later concede that it was paying the salaries of 50,000 soldiers who did not exist; the money was going straight into the bank accounts of the army’s many corrupt officers.18 Was it any wonder that Islamic State managed to conquer huge swathes of Iraq in 2014?
I spoke to Leah Wawro and Tobias Bock at Transparency International about their own investigations into the corruption in the Iraqi army. Wawro said:
In a really wide range of places we keep on seeing this connection between corruption and instability: you see it in Ukraine and Nigeria. Again in Central America the links between organized crime and instability there are just enormous. The Iraqi government has been perceived by the people of Iraq to be corrupt. It doesn’t do well on service delivery and the average member of the public feels so disenfranchised, and that creates a certain environment that an organization like Islamic State can thrive.19
Bock said the corruption in the Iraqi army was so deep that officers were thieving off their own men and would often invent them altogether so they could harvest the salaries paid to what are often referred to as ‘ghost soldiers’ and ‘phantom battalions’. This was one of the biggest factors in the army’s defeat in Mosul in 2014. Bock continued:
This has also been a big problem in places like Afghanistan where the soldiers’ wages are paid to the senior officers instead of directly into the soldiers’ bank accounts.
In Iraq, the commanders were responsible for paying their own soldiers and in many cases they would either just keep the money or lie about the numbers, or even pretend the money had never reached the bank accounts of the recipients who might be from some remote part of the country. If the men actually do exist they are told by their officers ‘Really sorry, but the money never came from the ministry.’20
The paranoia of Nouri al-Maliki
Corruption helped foment the view for many of the state’s weakness and even illegitimacy. For millions of Sunnis, the feeling they were discriminated against and marginalized exacerbated this deepening resentment. This would eventually lead to protests by Sunnis that would play into the hands of Baghdadi as he prepared to build his caliphate. The one man who would ultimately be blamed for presiding over the mess was Iraq’s two-term Shia prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Ali Khedery, the important Iraqi-American US adviser, described the events leading up to the appointment of Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister. By 2005 the Americans had tired of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. There had been too many mistakes and, furthermore, the terrible interior ministry scandal, in which hundreds of young Sunni men were abused and tortured, had happened on his watch.21 Khedery said:
Ibrahim al-Jaafari was a catastrophic prime minister; he was feckless, he was indecisive, he was a poor leader. He just liked to give long incoherent speeches and sermons. The only thing he had ever done before was give religious sermons. Under Jaafari’s reign we had the bunker scandal where hundreds of Sunnis were sodomized and tortured; you had the Samarra mosque incident and all the ethnic killing afterwards because Jaafari had refused to declare a curfew. I can go on. From President Bush on downwards, it was decided that Jaafari could not return as prime minister after the election in 2005.
Other leading Shia contenders for the job had been ruled out or had effectively ruled themselves out, mainly because of their extremely close links to Iran, remembered Khedery. The strong perception had grown among Sunnis that, for all intents and purposes, Iran controlled senior Shia politicians and the Shia militias, even that Iranians had been involved in the running of death squads. Khedery added:
So basically what we were left with was Maliki and only a handful of us knew who he was. At one point I was the only one who would take his phone calls at the American embassy. I remember he used to call me early on in 2006 asking for Green Zone badges and US government-issue cell phones and other such things. Maliki struck me as an Arab nationalist type; he also struck me as less prone to formal Iranian connections and that he was decisive. Sure enough, frankly, in his first term he demonstrated that he was decisive and that he was capable of leading and that he was willing to tackle alike both Sunni and Shia entities like al-Qaeda [ISI] and Jaysh al-Mahdi [the so-called Mahdi Army, under the controversial Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr].22
Maliki had been a senior Shia opponent of Saddam and spent twenty-four years in exile dodging the Iraqi dictator’s assassins before returning to Iraq following the US invasion like so many of his fellow Shia politicians. He was a senior member of the Shia Dawa party, which together with the other main Shia party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, SCIRI, won both of the national elections held in 2005. Dawa had a violent past and was known to have carried out bombings and assassinations before the fall of Saddam. To many, Maliki’s big round face expressed ‘utter joylessness’. An associate of Maliki’s once said, ‘He never smiles, he never says thank you and I’ve never seen him say “I’m sorry”.’23
As the years went by, it became clear that Maliki had been scarred by his years in exile, hunted as he had been by Saddam and the Ba’athists. The US military soon formed a low opinion of him. ‘We thought that primarily Maliki was out for himself,’ said Peter Mansoor, who often got to meet Maliki in the company of his own boss, General David Petraeus.
Maliki was highly paranoid and suspicious and above all he craved power. We didn’t know whether he was highly sectarian or not but we knew the people around him definitely were. So he was being advised by people who were definitely in bed with the Iranians. That was something we kept a close eye on. We had to battle all the time against policies and even individual actions that were sectarian in nature.24
Ali Khedery and other influential voices in the US–Iraqi power structure had supported Maliki to become prime minister. With US support, Jaafari was pushed out and in May 2006, Maliki replaced him just as the civil war was getting under way. Within weeks of taking over, Maliki would face a huge scandal which would have enormous repercussions for him and Iraq years later. On 30 May 2006, a US–Iraqi inspection team discovered 1,400 predominantly Sunni male detainees, including children, being held in ‘squalid, cramped conditions’ in two secret detention centres in Baghdad that were actually run by the Iraqi ministry of the interior (MOI) with the full knowledge and connivance of senior officers within the MOI. Yet again it involved the Ministry of Interior over which Maliki would exercise personal control. A secret cable written by the then US ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, revealed the shocking extent of the abuse of the Sunnis in the facility known as ‘Site 4’.
‘It would be difficult if not impossible for senior MOI…leadership responsible for Site 4 to be unaware of the prevalence of detainee abuse at the facility,’ wrote Ambassador Khalilzad. ‘This is suggested by the large number of detainees with serious physical injuries at Site 4, the obvious and illegal presence of 37 juvenile individuals and the fact that hooks and pulleys used to hang detainees from the ceiling were kept in plain sight.’25 He added, ‘Detainees in most cells have insufficient space to lie down and must sit entwined, knee-to-knee. Air circulation is poor, and the cellblocks are fetid…many detainees, who are allowed little or no access to fresh air, suffer from lice, scabies and infections.’
The report describes Maliki’s ‘appalled’ reaction to the news when Americans briefed him on 5 June, nearly a week after their discovery of Site 4. The US was worried about the impact that Site 4 could have on the ferocious conflict between Shia and Sunni that had already threatened to unravel the country along sectarian lines and they demanded action taken against the MOI officials responsible for the fiasco. It was a particularly sensitive issue for the Americans. Back in 2003–4, the US was embroiled in an enormous scandal over its own appalling and illegal mistreatment of inmates at Abu Ghraib prison.26 Rogue US military personnel had subjected men and women prisoners to ‘abuse, rape and torture’.27 The victims included suspected Sunni insurgents and the affair did enormous damage to the reputation of the US in the eyes of both the Iraqis and the international community. The Americans were deeply anxious that there should be no cover-up or any sectarian-motivated excuses to prevent any culpable MOI officials from being prosecuted.
When it came to Site 4, the Americans wanted action taken in particular against a senior MOI police commander, one Lieutenant General Mahdi Gharawi, who was in overall charge of the facility. In a later cable, officials at the US embassy believed that Gharawi had committed ‘gross human rights violations and extra-judicial killings’ at Site 4.28
In the spring of 2007, Khalilzad was succeeded by Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who also demanded that Gharawi be arrested. According to a secret cable written in May 2007 by Crocker, Gharawi was very close to his fellow Shia Nouri al-Maliki; the Iraqi prime minister had appointed him as a member of his own select team at the MOI.29
The Americans went repeatedly to Maliki and demanded Gharawi’s arrest but the prime minister refused. According to Ambassador Crocker, ‘Mehdi [Mahdi Gharawi] has proven valuable enough to Maliki, however, and he [Maliki] rebuffed our request that he execute an Iraqi warrant for Mehdi’s arrest’.30 Even General David Petraeus intervened with Maliki. ‘General Petraeus pressed the PM very hard on the Mahdi case,’ another secret report disclosed.31 An Iraqi court eventually charged Gharawi in 2008, but the MOI, then under Maliki’s personal influence, got the charges dropped under an Iraqi law designed to prevent the unfair sectarian targeting of – presumably – innocent people.32 A few years later, Maliki would make another serious error of judgement by appointing Gharawi as military commander for the province of Nineveh, based in the provincial capital of Mosul. Gharawi would be responsible for the defence of Mosul against a determined assault by ISIS in 2014 and would be blamed for the catastrophic fall of the city.
Maliki was also accused repeatedly of not doing enough to tackle the Shia militias that were engaged in ethnic cleansing and slaughtering Sunnis they suspected of being jihadists. Another secret report by Ambassador Ryan Crocker in July 2007 revealed the terrifying extent of the ethnic cleansing in Baghdad by both sides of the sectarian divide. ‘Sectarian violence has caused significant demographic shifts in Baghdad,’ wrote Ambassador Crocker, who went on to describe the flight of the Christians from the capital and how entire neighbourhoods were being cleansed of either Sunni or Shia.33 Maliki also faced accusations of increasing personal interference with the army and the security forces. In early 2007, he established a new department for himself, the ‘office of commander in chief’, which gave him direct control over the armed forces and even over the appointments of generals and other senior officers. US security officials feared that such a concentration of power in the hands of a Shia politician would result in ‘worsening the country’s sectarian divide’.34 One unnamed US intelligence source complained that Maliki’s ‘office of commander in chief’ was ‘ensuring the emplacement of commanders it favours and can control, regardless of what the ministries want’.
The Americans grew increasingly alarmed as Maliki tightened his personal grip on the army and bypassed traditional chains of military command. The US had spent billions on building and training a new army for Iraq following the abolition of the old one and was desperate for it to be made anew along non-sectarian lines. The portentously named office of commander in chief started to give direct orders to individual Iraqi commanders, bypassing the chain of command, allegedly to get rid of our certain Sunni commanders.35 Individual Iraqi commanders, many considered good and non-sectarian by the Americans, were forced out or removed by Maliki.36 A secret cable written by Ambassador Crocker on 15 May 2007 stated, ‘Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s efforts to reshape the Iraqi national security architecture seem to be producing increasing centralization of power in the hands of an inner circle of Shia Islamists at the expense of the formal chain of command.’ Senior Iraqi defence officials were warning that ‘Maliki’s methods are similar to Saddam’s approach to controlling the military’.37 Later US Ambassadors to Iraq were appalled at the cronyism Maliki had introduced to the army. James Jeffrey, the Ambassador from 2010 to 2012, told me, ‘Maliki micro managed the army. While it was not a great military, Maliki destroyed whatever professionalism it had.’38
Elsewhere the secret US memo refers to ‘Maliki’s paranoid perspective’, adding, ‘Maliki has repeatedly expressed fears of coups and conspiracies against him and his government…Maliki’s twin bêtes noires are Ba’athist resurgence and military coup.’ Ambassador Crocker revealed that of the twenty-four generals making up the staff of Maliki’s office of commander in chief, twenty were Shia and just four were Sunnis, an astonishing reversal of fortunes in the once Sunni-dominated army.39
In March 2008, Maliki demonstrated his control of the Iraqi army by personally leading military assaults against a Shia militia that opposed him. Operation Charge of the Knights was launched mainly against the troublesome Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr, first in Iraq’s southern city of Basra and then in the huge mainly Shia neighbourhood of Sadr City, where Maliki was witnessed directing Iraqi divisions over his mobile phone.40 However, the main future targets of his personal military power would be the country’s Sunni minority. Maliki stands accused of effectively destroying the Awakening movement, which had played such a vital role in the defeat of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Islamic State of Iraq in 2007. This is a particularly serious allegation because the Awakening tribesmen and the so-called ‘Sons of Iraq’ Sunni militias could have helped to prevent ISIS from re-establishing its deadly hold over Anbar in 2014.
Maliki had always been wary of the Sons of Iraq, part of the Awakening movement; he thought them a fifth column that had the potential to form an army and act independently of the state. The Iraqi prime minister repeatedly reminded the Americans that members of the Sons had themselves been insurgents in the past. ‘These guys used to point their guns at us and you,’ Maliki is reported to have told General Petraeus during one of their stand-offs, arguing that the US could not risk backing dangerous former Sunni insurgents. ‘Now they are pointing their guns at AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq, or ISI]. Do you want them to point their guns back at us and kill our soldiers and yours?’41
The Awakening is put to sleep
By 2009, there were an estimated 70,000 to 90,000 Sons of Iraq but Maliki was clearly reluctant to have them ingested into the police, seeing the volunteers as thugs or Sunni terrorists, ‘a hidden army’.42 ‘Nobody cares about the Awakening groups,’ one high-ranking Iraqi officer told US researchers. ‘The population hates them, and from the government’s point of view, they only carry light weapons. The army has enough men, means and discipline to crush them militarily on any given day!’43
Maliki’s greatest weapon in killing off the Awakening movement proved to be the biometric data collected by the US when signing up recruits. The data had been taken to screen out dangerous criminals and cerain irredeemable insurgents but this material was clearly handed over to the Iraqis later, as a report revealed: ‘US military officers also believe Iraqi security forces can deal with recidivist insurgents, having good biometric and other personal data on each Sons of Iraq participant.’44 How could the Iraqis do that without getting the data gathered by the US? In 2009, the Iraqi government arrested around forty Awakening leaders and sentenced one to death for terrorist activity. The movement was disbanded the same year.45 The Sunni recruits were between a rock and a hard place, targeted by the government and also by ISI jihadis.46 These arrests continued as the US continued to withdraw its troops from Iraq and its influence gradually waned.
Only around thirty percent of Sons of Iraq were absorbed into the police or low-paid office security jobs. Those who were fired lost their $350 a month pay packet and faced the possibility of arrest. There would be no Sons of Iraq to defend Anbar against the ISIS invasion of late 2013. In fact Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi would not have succeeded without the support of some of the Sunni tribes that had taken part in the Awakening against his predecessors. Human rights activist and former Sunni MP Nada al-Jabouri told me that the Shia militias killed many former members of the Awakening, also known as al-Sahwa. She said:
Many of them in my area, Adhamiya [near central Baghdad], have been killed and yet without the Awakening and the American army, we could not have lived there. The security forces were not able to keep them secure.
The government cut their payments. I have a driver with me in Adhamiya and I asked him why he left the Awakening, the Sahwa, and he told me, ‘Because there is no future and I will be killed.’ Many Sunnis said to me, ‘Why should we fight? For whom? Why should we fight for a sectarian government and for Iran?’47
The national parliamentary election of 2010 presented the ideal opportunity to be rid of Maliki. A non-religious coalition of both Shia and Sunni politicians called the Iraqiya List won ninety-one seats and effectively defeated Maliki’s bloc of Shia parties, the so-called State of Law coalition, which managed to win just eighty-nine. A significant majority of Sunnis in Anbar and Nineveh, the two provinces successfully invaded by ISIS in 2014, voted for Iraqiya.
Ali Khedery had long concluded that Maliki should go. He told me, ‘By 2010, I had changed my position on Maliki, because Iraq had gotten through the civil war; violence was down by ninety percent from pre-Surge high. What we needed was an economically minded prime minister, a unifier, to unite the country, not a divisive, sectarian, increasingly Iranian-allied individual like Maliki.’48 Iraqiya did not enjoy an overwhelming majority but it did have the largest number of seats in the new parliament and it was certainly in pole position.
However, in talks over the forming of the government, Iraqiya’s secular leader, Ayad Allawi, a Shia ex-Ba’athist, insisted on being prime minister. Other Shia parties that had not been part of Maliki’s coalition feared the return of Ba’athists under Allawi and supported Maliki.49 Joining forces with him, they managed to form the largest power bloc. Critically, Maliki won the support of both the US and neighbouring Iran, the two countries with the most influence on Iraq. Shia Iran had and still enjoys the most profound hold on the country and is known to fund and support Shia politicians and militias.
Khedery was in despair. He said:
Maliki continually did not fulfil the promises he made to us privately, and these were literally made in my presence. That included not suspending the so-called office of the commander in chief, which was his sort of Saddam-like organizational structure where all divisional commanders reported to him; he did not suspend his secret torture and intelligence authorities, which we knew about and confronted him about; he did not pass a general amnesty to free the vast majority of Sunni detainees. He betrayed the promises he made to the Kurds and us. He also betrayed his power-sharing promises generally to his political partners to include his fellow Sunni. In other words he did exactly what some of us predicted, which was that he continued to consolidate power.
Khedery believes the 2010 election, effectively lost by Maliki, was a golden opportunity for Iraq that was tragically passed up.
The reality was that the Surge had succeeded tremendously, much more than any of our wildest expectations, as evidenced by the fact that for the first time since 2003 a vast majority of the Kurds and Sunnis and Shia all participated in the elections and that a secular, moderate, Western-leaning, cross-sectarian alliance, Iraqiya, won the election. That was the biggest gift granted to the United States of America and our coalition allies in decades. This is exactly the list we dreamed that would win one day. Instead what happened was that we betrayed our promises to these folks, to our national allies, the Kurds and the secular Sunnis and Shia, and we ended up backing Maliki for a second term despite the fact that he had lost the election. As a result we tacitly got into bed with the Iranians and fomented a theocracy, a sectarian government, a corrupt government and a dictatorial government which led us to exactly where we are today.50
By December 2010, Maliki was still prime minister and still in direct control of the interior and defence ministries.51 Iraqiya was marginalized and leading members accepted comparatively minor ministries in the new government. Increasingly the Sunnis they represented began to feel even more ignored. Maliki was now accused of forging a dictatorship. The accusation was made explicitly in 2011 by Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni deputy prime minister, who said, ‘Maliki is heading toward a system run by one party and one man, with the Dawa Party replacing the Ba’ath Party and Maliki taking the place of Saddam Hussein.’52 Maliki ordered hundreds of arrests mainly of suspected ‘Ba’athists’. In one case, in September 2011, 145 university employees were arrested in Tikrit and accused of being Ba’athists.53 The US Ambassador at the time, James Jeffrey, believed that Maliki had initially wanted to do more to integrate the Sunni, but that he had been essentially captured by his many of his fellow Shia politicians and the ever present Iranians. ‘They could have encouraged him to integrate,’ said Jeffrey, ‘but instead they supported the most egregious anti-Sunni efforts made by Maliki.’54
In late 2011, Maliki would try to arrest top Iraqiya Sunni leaders. Strategically this proved a disastrous move and played a significant part in the resurgence of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his jihadis. Ironically, Maliki attempted the arrests on the day another of his greatest long-term strategic errors was being played out. On 15 December 2011, a ceremony marked the final withdrawal of all US troops from Iraq. Around 80,000 had pulled out since Barack Obama had become president in January 2009. Eventually, Maliki insisted on a complete withdrawal55 although Saddam’s former deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz, languishing in his jail cell, accused the US of ‘leaving Iraq to the wolves’.56 President Barack Obama had wanted to keep a residual force in Iraq of 5,000 troops but he could not get the necessary legal protection for them from the Iraqis. ‘We insisted on strict inviolability for our troops,’ said James Jeffrey, former US Ambassador to Iraq, ‘but the Iraqi political system couldn’t swallow that and Obama didn’t fight hard enough for it and neither did anyone else.’ Lieutenant General Babaker Zebari, the Iraqi army’s chief of staff, said the US army should have stayed because the Iraqi army would not be ready until 2020.57 Peter Mansoor, the former military aide to General Petraeus, thought the withdrawal of all troops had been a grave mistake by the US, not only in terms of Iraq’s security, but also because it removed an important weapon of leverage on Maliki and Iraq. He said:
Withdrawing US forces took away that leverage of having a four-star general and an ambassador constantly acting as a check and balance against the sectarian nature of the government in Baghdad. When our troops left we had no more reason to go to Maliki and say ‘You shouldn’t be doing this, or doing that.’
I primarily viewed any residual military force as diplomatic leverage. As long as you had those troops there, you had a reason to meet with Maliki every week. When we had 160,000 troops in Iraq, I called them 160,000 points of leverage.58
On the very day that the last US soldiers left, Maliki sent troops and tanks to surround the homes of three senior Sunni politicians from Iraqiya, Tariq al-Hashimi, the country’s vice-president, Rafi al-Issawi, the finance minister, and the deputy prime minister, Saleh al-Mutlaq. Maliki’s own son and head of security, Ahmed, had personally led the troops in the operation and placed the trio of Sunni politicians under house arrest. Maliki was accusing two of the politicians, Issawi and Hashimi, of running a death squad called Hamas of Iraq. Hashimi flew north to Iraqi Kurdistan to avoid being charged with murder. The following year, he was sentenced to death in absentia.59
As must be patently obvious, Iraq is a very long way from being a normal functioning democracy. Despite holding elections, both Sunni and Shia politicians have been accused of having links with militias and death squads, as well as being involved with torture and the ordering of assassinations. However, Hashimi always insisted on his ‘absolute innocence’.60 Many Sunnis saw the arrests of their most senior leaders as an attack on their community, although a close adviser of Maliki, Saad al-Muttalibi, told me there were good grounds for Hashimi’s arrest. ‘Hashimi was convicted of four murders,’ said Muttalibi. ‘The evidence was very clear. There was physical evidence of Hashimi’s direct involvement in providing orders for the assassination of a lawyer, indeed of another lawyer, of sending booby-trapped cars into the Karrada area of Baghdad using one of his staff members. So there was complete evidence of his involvement, and I was told that by the judge, who was a friend of mine.’61
Issawi, who also maintained his innocence, was released along with Deputy Prime Minister Mutlaq the following day. However, a year later, in December 2012, Maliki went after his finance minister once more by yet again raiding Issawi’s house in Fallujah and arresting ten of his bodyguards on suspicion of murder.62 This time several thousand Sunnis took to the streets of Fallujah to protest, carrying posters reading ‘resistance is still in our in our veins’. Muttalibi accused Issawi of stoking up the problem. Again Muttalibi insists that Maliki had just cause in taking on Issawi, claiming that twelve of Issawi’s bodyguards had been involved in the murder of twenty men from Fallujah. ‘I actually met those twenty families in Maliki’s office,’ said Muttalibi. ‘The families claimed the executions were carried out by twelve of Mr Issawi’s bodyguards so the order for the arrest of the twelve bodyguards was issued. The moment they arrested those bodyguards, Mr Issawi went and started this campaign and started the protest camp. And then it took another form. At that time there was no request to arrest him. Then the investigation happened into the ministry of finance and of course he was the minister of finance at the time, and there were financial irregularities and illegal distribution of land in Iraq.’
Sunni leaders were now warning they might withdraw from the government and accused Maliki of abusing his power to target election opponents.63 All the pent-up fury and angst felt by Sunnis over discrimination, de-Ba’athification, corruption and the destruction of the Awakening began to spill over and protests spread across the country. On 28 December 2012, there was a mass protest called the ‘Friday of Honour’ with tens of thousands of Sunnis taking part, particularly in the Sunni heartlands of Anbar and to the north in Nineveh.
Widespread Sunni protests took place throughout the winter of 2012–13 and into the spring. Maliki became convinced that Baghdadi and ISI were also involved in the growing mayhem and were involved in organizing some of the protests. The sectarian strife was helping create the right conditions for the resurrection of ISI, and the jihadis were attracting new recruits to their cause. This time, their management of savagery would be impeccable. After years of humiliation and defeat, ISI would soon metastasize remorselessly across huge areas of Syria and Iraq. 2013 was the comeback year, the year they would start to build their caliphate.