US goals are for a unified, democratic, and federal Iraq that can sustain, govern, and defend it and is an ally in the global war on Islamic militancy. The formal political transition from the Saddam regime to representative government was largely completed, but tensions remained among the dominant Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs that have been displaced from their former perch in Iraqi politics, and the Kurds who fear renewed oppression by all of Iraq’s Arabs. There are also substantial schisms within these communities.

After the fall of the regime, the United States set up an occupation structure, believing that immediate sovereignty would favour established anti-Saddam factions and not necessarily produce democracy. The administration initially tasked Lt Gen Jay Garner (ret) to direct reconstruction with a staff of US Government personnel to administer Iraq’s ministries; they deployed in April, 2003. He headed the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), under the Department of Defence (DOD), created by a January 20, 2003, Executive Order.

Garner and aides began trying to establish a representative successor regime by organizing a meeting in Nassiriyah (April 15, 2003) of about 100 Iraqis of varying views and ethnicities. A subsequent meeting of over 250 notables, held in Baghdad April 26, 2003, agreed to hold a broader meeting one month later to name an interim administration.

In May 2003, President Bush, reportedly seeking strong leadership in Iraq, named Ambassador L Paul Bremer to replace Garner by heading a ‘Coalition Provisional Authority’ (CPA). Bremer discontinued Garner’s transition process and instead appointed (July 13, 2003) a non-sovereign Iraqi advisory body: the 25-member ‘Iraq Governing Council’ (IGC). In September 2003, the IGC selected a 25-member ‘cabinet’ to run the ministries. The Bush Administration initially made the end of US occupation contingent on the completion of a new Constitution and the holding of national elections for a new government, tasks expected to be completed by late 2005. However, Grand Ayatollah Sistani and others agitated for early Iraqi sovereignty, contributing to the November, 2003 US announcement that sovereignty would be returned to Iraq by June 30, 2004, and national elections were to be held by the end of 2005.

That decision was incorporated into an interim Constitution — the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), drafted by the major factions and signed on March 8, 2004. The TAL provided a roadmap for political transition, including (1) elections by January 31, 2005, for a 275-seat transitional National Assembly; (2) drafting of a permanent Constitution by August 15, 2005, and put to a national referendum by October 15, 2005; and (3) national elections for a full-term government, by December 15, 2005. Any three provinces could veto the Constitution by a two thirds majority, which would trigger a redrafting and re-vote by October 15, 2006. The Kurds maintained their autonomy and militia force.

The handover ceremony occurred on June 28, 2004. Dominated by the major factions, this Government had a President (Sunni tribal figure Ghazi al-Yawar), and a Prime Minister (lyad al-Allawi, see above) who headed a cabinet of 26 ministers. Six ministers were women, and the ethnicity mix was roughly the same as in the IGC. The defense and interior ministers were Sunnis.

As of the handover, the state of occupation ceased, and a US Ambassador (John Negroponte) established US Iraq diplomatic relations for the first time since January 1991. A US Embassy opened on June 30, 2004; it is staffed with about 1100 US personnel.

Transition Government on January 30, 2005, elections were held for a transitional National Assembly, 18 provincial councils (four-year term), and the Kurdish regional assembly. The Sunni Arabs, still resentful of the US invasion, mostly boycotted, and no major “Sunni slates\were offered, enabling the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) to win a slim majority (140 of the 275 seats) and to ally with the Kurds (75 seats) to dominate the National Government.

Constitutional Referendum Subsequently, a Constitution drafted by a committee appointed by the elected government was approved on October 15, 2005. Sunni opponents achieved a two-thirds ‘no’ vote in two provinces, but not in the three needed to defeat the Constitution. The crux of Sunni opposition was the provision for a weak Central Government (‘federalism’): it allows groups of provinces to band together to form autonomous ‘regions’ with their own Regional Governments, internal security forces, and a degree of control over local energy resources. Sunni regions lack significant proven oil reserves. Article (137) of the Constitution provided for a special constitutional amendment process, within a set six-month deadline, to mollify Sunnis, but not completed to date.

First Full Term Government in the December 15, 2005 election for a full four year term government, some Sunnis, seeking to strengthen their position to amend the Constitution, fielded electoral states—the ‘Consensus Front’ and the National Dialogue Front. With the UIA alone well short of the two-thirds majority needed to unilaterally form a Government, Sunnis, the Sadr faction, secular groupings, and the Kurds demanded Jafari be replaced and accepted Nuri-al-Maliki as Prime Minister (April 22, 2006). Maliki won approval of a Cabinet on May 20, 2006.

The Iraqi Government is receiving growing diplomatic support, even though most of its neighbours, except Iran, resent the Shiite and Kurdish domination of the regime. Then Ambassador CrocKer testified during April 8-9, 2008, that the US lamented that, at that time, there were no Arab Ambassadors serving in Iraq, depriving the Arab states of countervailing influence to Iran’s ties to Iraqi factions. In part responding to the US pressure, during 2007-2008, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Jordan, Syria, Qatar, Oman, and Egypt either sent Ambassadors to Iraq or announced that they would. Most of those embassies have now been established, and Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman have been sending diplomats to Iraq to arrange the logistics of establishing embassies. In January, 2009, Iraq appointed its first Ambassador to Syria in almost 30 years. In July, 2009, Yemen named an Ambassador to Iraq.

In major visits, Jordan’s King Abdullah visited Iraq on August 11, 2008, becoming the first Arab leader to do so. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad visited March 2-3, 2008. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan visited in July 2008 and the Turkish President, Abdullah Gul, visited in March 2009, the first such visit by a Turkish head of state in three decades. In a major step toward reconciliation, Kuwait’s Foreign and Deputy Prime Minister Mohammad Al Sabah visited Iraq in February, 2009.

However, critics say Maliki is concentrating power in his office (the office of the Prime Minister) and his advisers are running ‘a Government inside a Government’, bypassing ministers and Parliament. In his role as commander in chief, he appoints generals as heads of military units without the approval of Parliament. “The officers, critics say, are all loyal to him. He has created at least one intelligence service, dominated by his clan and party members, and taken two military units the anti-terrorism unit and the Baghdad brigade-under his direct command. At the same time he has inflated the size of the ministry of national security that is run by one of his allies.

Maliki, who many say was chosen because he was perceived to be weak and without a strong grassroots power base, has managed to outflank everyone, his Shia allies and foes, the Americans who wanted him removed at one time, even the Iranians.

It is known that Maliki was the head of the Dawa party there and the two met frequently. “Unlike other opposition figures he [Maliki] didn’t build wealth, he is very honest and very organized,” he told me. The sheik, who spent more than 25 years involved in the opposition to Saddam, explained the conspiratorial mentality of his fellow opposition figures.

“The Dawa party in its methods and way of working is very similar to the Communist party. They don’t trust anyone. They surround themselves with people they know. Maliki, like all of us, is the product of exile. They have suffered for so long in exile so now they trust no one.”

Now Iraq has intelligence units in the ministry of defence and the ministry of information, but then we have the ministry of state for national security, run by Maliki’s ally Sherwan ai-Wa’ili. According to the Constitution it should have staff of no more than 26 people, now they are more than 1000. Maliki has his own intelligence unit, and military units that work directly under his command as the Commander in Chief. The Prime Minister is running everything through his advisers and nothing happens without his approval or his office, the office of the Prime Minister.

Many people say that they changed their rhetoric. They talk now about law and nationality but the reality is the same, they are the same sectarian people.

Observers not steeped in Iraqi history might be bemused to find that six years after the toppling of a dictator, after the death of several hundred thousand Iraqis, a brutal insurgency, trillions of wasted dollars and more than 4000 dead US soldiers, the country is being rebuilt along very familiar lines concentration of power, shadowy intelligence services and corruption.

Political imagination in Iraq is still attached to the past 30 years; credibility of the ruler is connected somehow to the old order.

Once the Iraqi Prime Minister was seen on a visit the newly opened Baghdad archaeological museum. Hundreds of armed men stood guard around the concrete buildings, while armored vehicles blocked roads miles away. A helicopter buzzed in the dusty sky overhead. Outside the gates, dozens of black SUVs waited like faithful dogs and women pressed their black shrouded bodies against the metal railing waiting for a glimpse of the leader. In the centre of this bubble of men, guns and steel walked Maliki, surrounded by a further three rings of bodyguards, dressed respectively in dark grey suits, khaki outdoor outfits and commando fatigues.

He moved between glass display cabinets, inspected Sumerian seals and Islamic bowls, and listened to the accompanying museum official explaining the stone Assyrian motif. After inspecting each cabinet, he moved his eyes from the artefact into the lens of the accompanying Iraqi TV camera, beaming his confident image live to the nation. Then his tour would resume and his halo of bodyguards, journalists and foreign dignitaries move with him.

It’s a scene Iraqis would be very familiar with. It has been played out numerous times through Iraq’s modern history, as its leaders have sought to borrow legitimacy from the nation’s history. In the lobby of the museum, newspaper clippings show the dictator Abdul Salam Arif making a similar visits for the museum’s inauguration in 1963, though with significantly fewer guards. Saddam visited too, although the newspaper clippings are not afforded the same prominence for obvious reasons.

Even Maliki’s critics admit he is giving Iraqis what they crave. All over Baghdad, people tell you that Abu Israa, as the Prime Minister is fondly known, is the strong leader the country needed after the chaos of civil war, insurgency and occupation. His success in the recent local elections was one measure of this popularity.

“A few veteran politicians who attended a tribal meeting with Maliki said that it was very similar to a meeting they had attended with Saddam. The tribesmen cheered for him, they chanted ‘Yes, yes to Maliki the leader’. Some unfolded banners and just like Saddam, he went on talking for hours, without a coherent message.”

People are used to that image, because Iraq went through decades of centralized authority and because people who want electricity, water and sewerage think that the authority of a strong man can solve all these problems.

Any self-respecting Iraqi politician who wants to build his own power base must first establish or acquire his own intelligence service. After a couple of weeks in Baghdad talking to politicians, members of Parliament and intelligence officials I came to the conclusion that Iraq has seven separate intelligence units or may be eight. No one could agree on the precise number.

An Iraqi journalist with links to some government officials explained. “People shouldn’t blame Maliki. The security situation creates from the leader a dictator, and that’s normal and logical, to surround yourself by people you trust; your friends and family, because you don’t trust the others.

Maliki and the leadership of Dawa (Maliki’s party) managed to obtain the loyalty of military and civilian institutions and commanders and now those officers are loyal to Dawa and moved their alliances from other parties.

Officers, even if they are not part of Dawa, want to kiss the hand that feeds them they become part of the matrix because they are appointed by Maliki. e.g., officers attached to the supreme council changed their loyalties to that of Dawa.

Faryad Rawandousi, a member of the security committee in the Iraqi Parliament said “There are a lot of appointments of officers, brigade commanders and above 140 ranks that come directly from the Prime Minister without obtaining the approval of the Parliament. These appointments are done without going back to the Constitution, using existing laws of the former regime without taking into consideration that we are in a very different political system.”

“The big commanders are loyal to whoever puts them in power” an official in the ministry of defence said. “They support Maliki because he is not imposing on them difficult conditions and some moved their alliances from other parties.”

All these signs are not enough to make Maliki a dictator in the mould of Saddam, says the Iraq analyst. “There is no return to the days of Saddam this is at most a shaky dictatorship. Now we have many small dictatorships, not one strong one and that will create checks and balances.”

Charles Tripp, a professor of politics in the Middle East at the School of Oriental and African Studies and a leading Iraq historian, said “Dictators didn’t come out of nowhere; they didn’t come by a great explosion. They come by capturing small things bit by bit. Small things are very telling; they tell you the nature of things to come.  One day people will wake up and ask how did we come here, it must be an awful conspiracy”.