BAGHDAD—It was December 2010, and Nouri Kamal al-Maliki sat in a faux palace, erected by Saddam Hussein, on the Feast of Sacrifice, one of the most sacred days in the Muslim Calendar. The politician, who had just secured his second term as prime minister of Iraq after an eight-month stalemate, sat in a gilded, thronelike chair, surrounded by members of his Shiite religious Dawa Party. Former enemies walked into the hall to congratulate him, and Maliki rose to embrace them. To his left was a founder of his party, the oldest surviving Dawa member, who had been tortured under Hussein and was now spending his golden years in quiet retirement near the Shiite shrine of Imam Khadim in western Baghdad. There were others like him, who basked in the pageantry like a balm for the jail, death, and humiliating exile they endured. Their grip on power, a feverish dream during decades abroad putting out tracts and plotting, now seemed permanent.
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Maliki is neither pro-American nor pro-Iranian. He will take what he can from whomever he can. He will adapt ideologies as much from expediency as belief. When he heeds the Iranians, his responsiveness stems from his own interests and an instinct for survival. If he turns a blind eye to Iranians traversing his air space to arm the Syrian regime, it is a calculation he makes based on his own national concerns. It doesn’t make him Iran’s servant, just as taking American weapons doesn’t make him America’s man. . . .
It is a mistake to see Maliki or Mohammed Morsi in Egypt or any of the ascendant new leaders in the Middle East as builders or wreckers of new democracies. Maliki was a defender of Iraq, the country’s Shiite population, and himself, the way his predecessors had been defenders of their own amendable ideologies. His experiences were what allowed him to rise in the turbulence of post-Saddam Iraq, but his decades of humiliation set him on the path of running a faltering autocratic state immersed in perpetual war. . . .
What has always guided Maliki is a wish to be seen as a great leader of Iraq. When he left his village full time for Baghdad in the early days after Hussein’s fall, some warned him that he would be swallowed by the state. His answer: You can forget your political party, but never your own people. It is this wish to be true to his people that could still redeem him. And it is this wish that could redeem the Arab world’s post-revolution leaders as they juggle their nations’ ghosts and their own demons.
This article is based on trips the authors made to Maliki’s village; a 2010 interview one of the authors conducted with the prime minister; state television interviews given by Maliki; and interviews the authors conducted with relatives and friends of Maliki, members of the Dawa Party, other Iraqi political figures, U.S. military officers, and current and former U.S. officials.