In his profile of Nuri al-Maliki in The New Yorker this week, Dexter Filkins explores the Iraqi Prime Minister’s intimate ties with Dawa, a grass-roots Shia Islamist group. During the Saddam Hussein era, Dawa distinguished itself as the only genuine resistance movement - the secular nationalist, royalist, and Kurdish cadres being content with propaganda offices in London - and it has now emerged as a central power broker and a principal combatant in the country’s sectarian wars.
The Filkins’ piece was corroborated in a conversation I had this month with an old Iraqi friend, Samir Al Jaburi, who passed through Paris this month the way he does each year as a guest of the French government. Samir manages the Ministry of Commerce and Industry’s pavilion at the annual trade exposition in Baghdad and a perk of the job is a week of meetings and day trips in and around town. It’s a good job and Samir, a Sunni Muslim in what is now archly Shia-centric Iraq, must work hard to keep it. He is constantly warding off challenges from the shills of sectarian elites who would, if given the chance, exploit the job for personal gain. The clutch of Dawa apparatchiks, Samir told me, is never far away.
"Dawa controls everything,” he said. “The checkpoints that divide the city, the ministries, the commercial contracts and the universities.”
According to Samir, Dawa is only the most powerful in a cartel of political parties that control vast sectors of the Iraqi economy. It represents a profound, if under-appreciated by-product of Iraq’s unraveling: an inability to regenerate what was once a robust and largely meretricious white-collar class.
Modern Iraq - the one carved out of the desert after World War I by Britain’s Colonial Office - began as a nation of traders in preservation of the country’s long role as Europe’s land bridge to Asia. During the Cold War it became an oil-rich proxy of both global powers before it was appropriated by Saddam Hussein, who in the 1970s converted its petroleum wealth into a booming economy led by world-class engineers, physicians, financiers and even artists whose education and crafts were subsidized by the state. The Iraq-Iran war, Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and the Gulf War it provoked along with more than a decade of U.S.-led sanctions, and finally America’s disastrous war to oust Hussein transformed a regional economic power into a violent wasteland of warring sects and tribes. In the 1990s Iraqi cardiologists and mechanical engineers had become cab drivers and shop-owners. Today, their children are thumb-crushers, pimps and confidence men.
I first met Samir in 1999 on my second visit to Iraq as a Middle East correspondent. Back then, visiting reporters were taken straight to the Al Rashid Hotel, where most foreign visitors were concentrated along with a subculture of hangers on – drives, fixers and translators, merchants and prostitutes. A scrum of men surrounded me as I disembarked from the GMC Suburban I’d hired for the 14-hour drive to Baghdad from Amman. I waved them off and they reluctantly parted to reveal Samir in faded khaki pants and a polo shirt. He was standing ram-rod straight as he strolled over and casually extended his hand.
“Welcome to Iraq,” he said. “May I be of assistance during your stay?”
There wasn’t a trace of servility in his voice. I liked him immediately.
“You’re hired,” I said.
For the next several days, we were inseparable. The occasion for my visit was a ratcheting-up of tensions between Iraq and the U.S. and I was to gather anecdote and color as string for my colleagues in Washington. Saddam had responded by mobilizing his “people’s militias” and Samir and I spent a day watching aging, overweight men awkwardly forming ranks at several reporting stations. When word got out that an American correspondent was on hand to capture the glorious event, several of the militiamen sought me out to tell me how fondly they remembered studying for advanced degrees at elite U.S. universities.
In subsequent reporting trips, Samir and I would meet with other refugees of Iraq’s once-globalized economy. There was, for example, the graduate of Britain’s Royal Military Academy at Sandhurt, an ex-officer in the Iraqi army’s corps of engineers, who produced rubber engine hoses and gaskets for a living; an electrical engineering specialist with a degree from the University of Wisconsin who repaired kitchen appliances and stereo systems (including eight-track cassettes players); a physician who plied the black market to supplement the meager supplies of drugs and medical equipment that were allowed for purchase under the sanctions regime; and a team of mechanics who worked for Iraqi Airways - which remained intact during the sanctions era despite the dissolution of its fleet - who preserved their skills by stripping and re-assembling the same Pratt & Whitney turbine engine.
By 2007, when Samir and I met in Damascus for a story I was writing about the millions of Iraqis who had fled Iraq’s civil war, most of the country’s skilled professionals had either abandoned the country or were killed in the sectarian killings that Hussein, his many atrocities notwithstanding, had managed to subdue.
Samir, 51, has a wife and four children. His eldest daughter is married to a Kurd and living in relative peace in the northern Kurdish city of Erbil. His eldest son Ahmed is studying law in Baghdad. It can take hours to get from one end of the city to the other because of the patchwork of roadblocks controlled by various political groups. At each chokepoint militiamen demand tribute from motorists the same way policemen insisted on bribes under Hussein. Saddam and the Baath Party, his source of power and patronage, has been neatly replaced by Maliki and Dawa.
Extortion has become a plague, Samir said. Recently, he was approached by a secretary from Ahmed’s law school who complained he was making trouble on campus and risked expulsion unless Samir paid the university an “emolument” of $2,000. Samir said he sent the man on his way, though not all such propositions are so easily deflected. “Young women who work in offices,” he told me, “are often forced to have sex with their employers. Jobs are so scarce these days they can’t say no.”
At the same time, the most exotic and expensive sports cars prowl the streets of Baghdad, the wages of a predatory economy that guarantees the biggest portions for those at the peak of the food chain.
“Iraq,” Samir told me, “has gone mad.”
Before Hussein’s ousting many Iraqis I met - even in the absence of government minders - would praise him as a paternal tribal sheik standing up to American imperium. It was their Big Lie, a fiction they sold themselves to evade responsibility for not rising up against the regime in a society where honor is esteemed above all things but faith in Abraham’s God. Now, not more than a decade after Saddam’s death, this expediency has been replaced by a weary cynicism that hardens with each shake-down, sectarian slaughter and school bombing.
It would be pleasant to believe the future of Iraq belongs to Iraqis like Samir who cling to their integrity like an overburdened life-raft even as they tread water from one day to the next. It would also be as naively self-indulgent as the notion that Saddam Hussein was anything other than a blood-thirsty tyrant who subverted his own vision of a prosperous Iraq. For myself, a pessimist by nature as well as inclination, the sooner Samir can get himself and his family out of Iraq the happier I’ll be.