A Legacy of Brutality and Corruption: Life in the New Iraq
Ghaith Abdul-Ahad on the High Costs of Post-Saddam Iraq
In the 2010 Iraqi parliamentary elections, Nouri al-Maliki bloc came second, having been beaten by the secular mixed list of Ayad Allawi.
But both the Americans and the Iranians had agreed to support Maliki’s bid to serve a second term—the Iranians because he had become their chief ally, and the Americans because they, already planning to withdraw their forces, did not want to disturb the status quo.
After the votes had been counted, the chief judge, a close collaborator of Maliki, declared that the government could be formed by the biggest list created after the elections and not before. This allowed Maliki the opportunity to buy further MPs into his list, and thus be declared victorious. Adnan al-Janabi, a tribal sheikh and member of parliament, described it to me as the day Iraq saw democracy die.
Maliki’s second term in office was further steeped in mistrust and paranoia, and constantly imagining a Baathi or a Sunni coup d’état. He was the Prime Minister, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and, for a while, both Minister of Interior and Minister of Defence. The anti-terrorism force answered to him alone, and the Baghdad brigade, his praetorian guard, was the best-equipped army unit in the country, and controlled all access in and out of the Green Zone.
Not one single senior army officer, security official or government official was appointed without his or his close circle of advisers’ personal approval. He also bought the loyalty of those officers by allowing them to turn the army into one inflated machine of corruption.
These appointments became a form of patronage used to buy loyalties among the army, security forces and independent state institutions. Through a mixture of intimidation, corruption and political intrigue, he also spread his tentacles through the judiciary, the anti-corruption commission and the press, turning them into tools used to hunt down his opponents in a zero-sum game.
Rather than starting a reconciliation process with former Sunni insurgents after the defeat of al-Qaeda, Maliki used his new powers to go after his senior Sunni politicians and the (Sunni) former insurgents who had turned against the jihadis by allying themselves with the Americans and the government. Instead of rewarding them with promised jobs and military posts—as he did with Shia militiamen, who were incorporated into the security forces—he cut their stipends, jailed and sometimes assassinated their commanders.
In their fortified Green Zone sat the new Iraqi elite: politicians and generals, sectarian warlords and provincial tycoons, rich and corrupt double-chinned buffoons. They and their sons, cousins, and clans, their militiamen and guards, and their guards’ military units, formed a new class of a few thousand men which had a monopoly on the wealth of Iraq, soaked deep in a cesspool of extortion. Bribes ruled everything, from getting an ID card to joining the army or signing a multimillion-dollar government contract.
“They—politicians and warlords—don’t take bribes any more, they become ‘business partners,’ you take your first payments, pay them and then fulfill your project, or not, it’s up to you,” a friend told me.
Hundreds of billions of dollars of oil money had been squandered since 2003, and there were hardly any new development projects to show for it. Just the same old potholed streets, miserable schools and decaying hospitals. Ministers occasionally fled the country with millions of dollars.
A colonel in an exquisite and expensive suit sat smoking a nargile while “facilitating” the issuing of passports and other government documents in exchange for the proper bribe. His son, a stocky young man who doubled as his father’s gatekeeper and bodyguard, sat beside him with a
notebook and an American pistol.
“To be appointed as a military commander in charge of a neighborhood or a military unit—you buy your post by paying a big bribe and then a monthly salary.”
To whom? I asked.
“To the political party, bloc, minister or commander that will appoint you, up to $300,000 per month. You get the money back by detaining people and negotiating with their families, taking a cut from your soldiers’ salaries, or by issuing special permits for trucks to move in or out of the neighborhood.”Rafiq was their savior, their tormentor and the symbol of the new Iraq: confident, brutal and corrupt.
Um Tahseen’s children had been killed, by everyone. She and what was left of her family lived in one of the poorer parts of Seliekh, in a small brick house of two rooms separated by a curtain. They slept, cooked and ate in one room, and received guests in the second, which had two rickety green sofas and a TV, and was stuffy with the smell of sewage, cooking oil and fried potatoes that seeped through the curtain. On the walls hung four large portraits of her murdered sons, each picture framed with yellow and pink plastic roses and green ribbons. The eldest fell foul of Sunni gunmen when they ran the neighborhood: he ignored their religious regulations and wouldn’t join them, or stop drinking.
Three other sons were kidnapped by different Shia militias from neighboring areas when they left for work and were never seen again.
Um Tahseen was probably in her sixties, thin and wiry. Her face was wrinkled, her nose arched, and her left eye was turning white. She was confused, she talked about her sons as if they were alive, then held her orphaned grandchildren and began to cry, shouted at her young daughter to bring tea, and then remembered that her youngest son had just been released from jail and started praising God and his Prophet for keeping him alive.
“Wallah, we sold everything and begged money from everyone until we got him out,” she told me. “For three years I didn’t hear anything, for three years we thought he was dead like his brothers, then one day prison officers called us, they said you can go visit your son if you pay. I went to Mayson, my neighbor; I told her I need money to go visit my son in prison. We waited, they brought him, his hands and legs tied in metal chains like a criminal. He wasn’t my son, he was someone else, I didn’t recognize him from the torture. Your mother dies for you, my dear son, I wailed and cried. I picked dirt from the floor smacked it on my head, they dragged me out and wouldn’t let me see him again.”
Her right eye was bright as she recounted how she, a poor lone woman, rescued her last remaining son. “I had lost four, I told them, I won’t lose this one. I told them I would pay; we paid one, then two, then five million Iraqi dinars. They would call us from the prison—we have to send them phonecards, and they call us—they said your son is being tortured, he will die if you don’t pay, and we paid and paid. What can I do? He is the last I have. I said I would sell myself in the streets, just bring him back to me.
“First, they asked for 60 papers [a paper is slang for a hundred-dollar bill], then they said 30. I begged them and they still said 30. I told them I don’t have that sum, so we settled on 20. We went to the mosque, our intermediary gave the money to the officer, and they brought him out two days later.”
What the officers in prison didn’t tell Um Tahseen was that the judge had already signed his release papers months earlier, but the officers wouldn’t release him until they’d received a bribe.
I wanted to meet the son, but she told me she was hiding him. Usually, whenever government forces raided an area, those who were released are detained again. She called him, and we talked on the phone, he said he would come and see me.
The mother disappeared behind the curtain and came back with a small bottle of Pepsi. Two kids peered around the curtain, a son and a daughter of two dead brothers. Above the TV, there was a picture of the Shia shrine of Imam Ali, and calligraphy of the name of Fatima his daughter and the mother of Imam Hussein.
My sectarian compass was confused. Shia militias had killed three of her children, her youngest son was tortured by Shia officers, so why does she have these Shia symbols on her wall? When I asked her, she told me that Fatima had lost her sons too. Um Tahseen belonged to the pre-sectarian age.
The son’s name was Sari; his baby face was puckered with fear and confusion. He lifted his shirt to show me the thick red lacerations on his back, the edge of each scar had a pink line where the skin tissue had bubbled. His mother turned her head and let out a soft cry. “For two weeks I was tortured, the torture started at midnight and went on to the morning,” he said. “They used different methods; there were the hanging and beating, or the beating on the kidneys. I still urinate blood. They wanted me to confess, but I didn’t.”
A few days later, a friend of mine who was a low-ranking intelligence officer in the Ministry of Interior took me to meet one of his colleagues, a fixer who conducted negotiations with officers on behalf of the detainees’ families. His name was Rafiq, and he was standing on the pavement outside the shop where he held council every night, drinking ouzo with his friends and receiving visitors. He was tall and erect with a clean-shaven head, dressed in a fitted black roll-neck sweater and slim trousers. He shouted into his phone, waved his hands to passing neighbors with elaborate theatrics and laughed stridently, showing his big yellow teeth and the self-confidence of a man with authority.
His neighbors walked by quickly, throwing out a quick greeting, avoiding his squinting eyes and pugnacious laughter.
They loathed him, a Shia in a Sunni neighborhood, a denouncer, an agent, and an officer in one of the most feared security apparatuses in Iraq—the Ministry of Interior Intelligence Unit. They knew that every time they passed in front of him, his piercing eyes registered them in that big ledger book that he would open later to examine them closely. And that when he needed prey, they or their brothers or cousins would be detained and disappear for months if not years. But they also needed him. He was their negotiator and mediator. They knew that when someone was arrested, they should come to him, and from him seek intercession. He would fix a visit, get a phone smuggled in, reduce the torture and eventually arrange a bribe to get the prisoner released. Each service had its price.
Rafiq was their savior, their tormentor and the symbol of the new Iraq: confident, brutal and corrupt. When I met him in the last week of December 2011, he was just closing a $5,000 deal with the family of a detainee. He promised them that he would send their son some blankets and food and assured them that the beating and torture would stop. The money was a down payment, the first of many. Further negotiations for a bribe to release him would follow.
Rafiq and his network were part of a flourishing industry in which Sunni neighborhoods—surrounded by high concrete walls and army checkpoints—were treated like tax farms. The threat of kidnappers, militias and insurgents was replaced by that of “official” arrest, yet the outcome is the same: pay money, keep fingers crossed, get released.
“Everyone is rotten,” said the officer who had introduced me to Rafiq. “Rafiq loves money—it is his religion and his sect—and that’s why he is very useful for us. At least there is someone to negotiate with, unlike in the days of sectarianism when we paid the money and they killed our sons anyway.” The officer, who was a Sunni, was part of Rafiq’s network; they worked together.
We sat in a yellow taxi to talk. His eyes twitched and darted everywhere like two flies trapped in the car—they scanned me, the vehicle and the world beyond: the pedestrians, the two men playing backgammon on small wooden stools, the man selling tea from a stall by the kerb.
“We are neutral; we don’t do Sunni and Shia any more. We are professional—detain people, hang them from the ceiling, beat them until they are motionless corpses. Shia and Sunni, no difference. Now the system is just like under Saddam: if you don’t pose a threat to the political class, you can walk with your head high and not fear anything, but if you come close to the seat of power, then the wrath of Allah will fall upon your head.”
Here his theatrics commandeered his face, he turned his lips down, and his eyebrows fell as, faking pain and sadness, he said: “Look what happened to the poor bodyguards of [Vice President] al-Hashimi—they have been tortured for a week now. They took them directly to our unit, and they were interrogated severely. Even an old general was hanging from the ceiling.” A week earlier Maliki had moved against the Sunni vice president, arresting his bodyguards, who made televised confessions likening their boss to a terrorist attacker.
I asked my friend, the low-ranking intelligence officer, if he could help get access to one of the Iraqi jails. What if, I suggested, he arrested me, but then returned the next day to release me, saying it was a case of mistaken identity. He set me straight. “I can arrest you, and I will charge you for that, but even if I came the next day and we proved that it was a case of mistaken identity, and I and you swear by the Quran that you were innocent, you will still have to go through the same process of torture and paying bribes. It’s not about your guilt or innocence, but about how much money they can get out of you.”
Excerpted from A Stranger In Your Own City by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad. Copyright © 2023 by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.