Iraq's interim Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki always seems to be in his comfort zone when he has to fight out of a corner. And right now Maliki and his allies have come out swinging as they try to deflect domestic and international furor over purported links in the WikiLeaks files that link Maliki's administration to secret prisons, torture and armed Shi'a militias that rampaged with impunity. "WikiLeaks is a deliberate campaign carried out by a number of media outlets aimed at defaming Iraq under the pretext of releasing classified information," says Khalid al-Asadi, a senior member in Maliki's Dawa Party and a leader in the interim Prime Minister's State of Law Shi'a coalition. "The timing of releasing such documents is not spontaneous."
All this occurs as Maliki continues his extended bid to secure a second term at the helm of the nation. His unyielding grasp on power has been the most consistent factor in the grinding, stop-start political negotiations that have left Iraq without a functioning coalition government since inconclusive national elections in early March.
But as Maliki scrambles to distance Baghdad from the WikiLeaks info-blitzkrieg, the hardened political survivor seems to have been handed an anti-Saddam Hussein card to help deflect attention: the fortuitous announcement of the sentencing of Tariq Aziz, 74, the ex-journalist and epicure who became the global face-man for Saddam's regime as foreign minister and, later, deputy prime minister. Aziz, the most prominent remaining member of Saddam's Ba'athist clique, was sentenced to death by hanging on Tuesday by Iraq's Supreme Criminal Tribunal for "liquidating" rival political activists who happened to be Shi'ites. He was also cited for killing merchants found profiteering.
Iraq's cynical political observers believe that luck had little to do with the announcement. "Tariq Aziz is an old man, why he would be hanged now if not for politics? If they keep him in jail, he would die in few years," says Ibraheim al-Sumaidaei, a lawyer and a political analyst, who also pointed out that the sentence may provoke anger from Iraq's minority Chaldean Christians, who count Aziz as a co-religionist. "It could be coincidental, but I think [Maliki] felt targeted and he responded accordingly," says Joost Hiltermann, Middle East director for the International Crisis Group. "He acted defensively. I'm not sure it was warranted, but he did." Aziz's sentence will be carried out 30 days after the sentence was passed unless there is a successful appeal.
On the Iraqi streets, it's the timing of the announcement, not the verdict, that has observers questioning Maliki's tactics. "I think this death sentence comes in part to reflect how Maliki and his political system are stumbling. They are scared," says Hanin Yusif, 39, an official at the Ministry of Planning.
People point to precedents. Earlier this year, in the weeks before the national vote on March 7, Maliki rode into the election on a wave of anti-Ba'athist sentiment, culminating in the execution of Saddam's first cousin and enforcer Ali Hassan al-Majid, known by the infamous nickname "Chemical Ali" for his part in the gassing deaths of Kurds after the first Gulf war. Lawyers on the prosecution team pushing for a larger genocide charge that was not adjudicated claim the process was fast-tracked.
Maliki's defenders say the Prime Minister sees himself as the instrument of revenge on Saddam's Ba'athists. Indeed, Maliki, a dark-horse, compromise candidate, emerged as premier after five months of political wrangling in 2006, to oversee the execution of Saddam Hussein. At the time, Hadi Jelow Mari, a columnist with Al-Mada newspaper, wrote, "Maliki will say to the Iraqi street that it was he who carried out the execution of Saddam Hussein and he who continues to enforce strict measure against Saddam's former Ba'athist deputies."
But while the Aziz sentence may remind Maliki's Shi'ite critics to coalesce under his anti-Ba'athist umbrella, the Prime Minister must still respond to other implications of the WikiLeaks scandal. "Everything is changed now," says Dr Saadi Kareem, a political science professor at Baghdad University. "Maliki is under pressure to reach an agreement with the [mostly Sunni] Iraqiya bloc, because the WikiLeaks documents accused Maliki of practicing violence against [Sunnis]. Now, Maliki should show that he is close to that sect." Washington, for one, is pushing for that show of national unity and Maliki needs U.S. support even as he tries to distance himself from America and its interests. Right now, says Kareem, Maliki's coalition "can only rally all the Shi'a plus the Kurds." The Prime Minister may have punched his way out of another corner but his fight isn't over yet.