For some months, Middle East rulers like Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Saudi King Abdullah, and Kuwaiti ruler Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, have been quietly cautioning the Americans that they are nurturing a new Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.
Prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, they warn, is preparing to rule independent Iraq with a steel fist, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East sources report. The only difference, they say, is that Iraq will have a Shiite dictator instead of Sunni Saddam's repressive rule which the US ousted in 2003. But this kind of regime when in control of natural wealth and an army will pose a danger not just for Iraq's internal cohesion, but its Arab neighbors.
These Arab rulers judge Maliki as even more ambitious and belligerent than the displaced Saddam. Once he attains the same measure of power in Iraq, they believe he will not hesitate to send his army across the border to attack Iraq's neighbors.
He has made no secret of his planned regime reform, which would replace the parliamentary system with presidential rule, so annulling the democratic institutions the Americans labored to foster in their six-year presence in Iraq.
The prime minister has even permitted publication of a photo (at the head of this article) which depicts Iraqi soldiers carrying a giant portrait of himself during a drill at a base in the northern town of Mosul. This photo points to the systematic inculcation of a leadership cult in the Iraq armed forces.
Maliki on bad terms with Kurdish, Sunni leaders
But the Obama administration was unimpressed by these warnings, calling the Arab rulers who issued them “overwrought.” Washington suspects them of tactics for delaying the US troop withdrawal from Iraq to a date as far as possible beyond the US president's targeted timeline of December 2011.
When he visited Baghdad earlier this month, Vice President Joe Biden urged the Iraqi prime minister to make more progress in bringing about reconciliation among the Shiite, Sunni and Kurd communities as the best guarantee for a democratic Iraq.
But according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources in Iraq, this guarantee is no longer viable. Relations between Maliki and the Kurds are on the point of exploding into armed conflict. Maliki is not on speaking terms with the president of autonomous Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, and Kurdish officials say frankly that were it not for the presence of American forces in northern Iraq, Baghdad and Erbil would have been at war long since.
Al-Maliki's relations with the Sunni Arab leaders are no better. The animosity between him and the Sunni tribal leaders has shot up in recent weeks.
Just before he received the Iraqi prime minister at the White House this week, President Barack Obama was shown an intelligence report which exposed Maliki as spending heavily – not for building national unity but four private armies from outside the national armed forces to bolster his regime. The report discloses that nearly one billion dollars has been invested in the four militias, which bear a remarkable resemblance to the sinister security forces which kept Saddam in power for close to 30 years.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly describes them in detail:
1. The Auxiliary Force:
Numbering 70,000 soldiers, nearly all Shiite tribesmen, this huge contingent has begun training at Iraqi military bases. Maliki in fact poached most of its troops from military units formed and trained by the Americans to fight terrorists, which means he is divesting the Iraqi army of its operational strength and leaving behind an empty military shell for defending the nation.
The Auxiliary Force's command structure, internal organization and uniforms appear to have been lifted wholesale from Saddam Hussein's infamous Presidential Republican Guard. On Maliki's personal orders, the unit operates in isolation from chains of command and control at the Iraqi defense and interior ministries. It is therefore insulated against American military access. This means that any coordination between the US forces operating outside Iraqi cities, including Baghdad, and the Auxiliary Force must be channeled directly through its sole commander, the prime minister in person.
US holds silent for fear of an open breach with Maliki
2. The Baghdad Division:
This elite unit of some 6,000 fighters has been given commando and urban warfare training for protecting al-Maliki in person and Iraqi government installations.
The division and its command structure are modeled on the Syrian Division 569, the corps which protects president Bashar Assad and his family.
3. The new Counter-Terrorism Apparatus:
The 6,000 fighters of this organization will be conducting personal missions on the prime minister's behalf.
They form an elite unit equipped with black uniforms and black flags like Saddam's Fedayeen, which performed the “dirty work” of eliminating opposition figures.
4. The Cells:
This special operational intelligence force, consisting of several thousand officers, is split into small cells of no more than 10 to 12 men each for gathering intelligence and spying on the other military forces used by Maliki.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources liken this group to the Commissar Units wielded by Saddam for keeping Iraqi military, intelligence and security units under his thumb. Eventually, the regime became over-dependent on the commissars and they grew more powerful than the professional brass. Saddam was thus left with a weak and ineffectual army.
The discovery of Maliki's four private armies has prompted a spate of US media reports in the last few days. According to one of them, “Tensions are rising between the U.S. and Iraqi governments over Baghdad's push to restrict American military operations in Iraq, with some U.S. officers complaining their forces are being constrained beyond what is called for in their agreement to withdraw from cities.”
Nevertheless, President Obama decided not to raise the issue of the private armies and their interaction with American forces in his talks with Nuri al-Maliki. He was anxious to avoid an open breach with the Iraqi prime minister which could delay the US troop withdrawal from Iraq.