Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki: the man who would be king

Ben Van Heuvelen writes:

Iraqi government forces arrived at the headquarters of the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory (JFO) at about 2 a.m. on Feb. 23, half a block from Baghdad’s Firdos Square, where eight years earlier news cameras had captured the iconic toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue. The soldiers jumped out of their Humvees and began trying to break down the front door. Inside, the building’s night watchman had been sleeping in his ground-floor apartment. He woke to the banging and opened the door, where he was met by a score of armed men, some wearing black clothing and ski masks, some in military fatigues stripped of any identifying insignia.

“Where is the JFO?” the officers demanded.

They didn’t identify themselves. They didn’t have to. As the government would later confirm, these forces answered to the Baghdad Operations Command, which coordinates all security forces in the capital and reports directly to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s office. Since 2007, Maliki has bypassed several layers of civilian and military leadership, establishing a direct line of control over key security forces, including Iraq’s 54th and 56th brigades, as well as an elite counterterrorism force trained and supported by the U.S. Special Operations Command. In concert with the “surge,” this strategy helped Iraq’s government regain control of the streets from a virulent insurgency. “We’re working literally day and night with the Baghdad Operation[s] Command,” said Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil, commander of U.S. troops in Baghdad, on Feb. 16, 2007, at the dawn of a joint U.S.-Iraqi operation that would soon bring remarkable security gains to the capital. Some four years later, the Baghdad Operations Command continues to act against entities deemed dangerous to the state.

The night watchman pointed the officers up a narrow stairway toward the JFO’s second-story offices. They ran upstairs and bashed their way in. More soldiers entered the building. They blindfolded the night watchman and bound his arms and legs.

The JFO’s headquarters consists of a reception area, a few small offices, and a conference room. Like most local NGOs, it operates on a shoestring budget, in affiliation with a few larger international organizations like Reporters Without Borders and the Society of Professional Journalists. Its mission is to protect the freedom of the press. On a practical level, this means the JFO is the central hub to which journalists in Iraq report censorship and abuse. Their records were stored in file cabinets and computers, all of which the security forces ransacked. They confiscated seven laptop and desktop computers, external hard disks, paper archives, five handicams, and one boxy gray television camera, an antique souvenir that had last been used in the 1950s. The raid lasted three hours. When it was over, the watchman was unbound and left to comfort his frightened wife and child.

Fellow journalists in Baghdad were amazed — though not surprised — to hear of such a brazen government attack on the press. A mutual friend arranged for me to meet Ziyad al-Ajili, director of the JFO. I drove across town to his office, which staffers had quickly returned to a state of tidiness. A broken door frame and the absence of desktop computers were the only traces of the break-in.

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