Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1136, 21 - 27 February 2013
Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Issue 1136, 21 - 27 February 2013

Ahram Weekly

Legacies of occupation

The man the US made Iraq’s chief justice has been sacked and charged with being a henchman of former president Saddam Hussein, writes Salah Nasrawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

On 28 June 2004, US diplomat Paul Bremer, the frontman of the US occupation in Iraq, summoned a small group of Iraqi politicians for a ceremony in Baghdad to mark the transfer of power after the Bush administration had decided to end its civil administration of the country.
During a low-profile gathering at one of former president Saddam Hussein’s palaces, Bremer, whose job was to dismantle the Saddam regime and install a new US-friendly government in Iraq, handed a file of legal documents to Iraq’s chief justice, Midhat Al-Mahmoud, symbolising the transfer of power by the US administration to an Iraqi interim government.
The transfer was only on paper because about 145,000 US and other foreign forces would still remain in the country, some of them for the next six years. Equally ironic was the fact that Al-Mahmoud, who had been handpicked by Bremer himself after he had taken up his job as civil governor of occupied Iraq, was known by many Iraqis to be one of Saddam’s former henchmen.
The appointment of Al-Mahmoud as head of the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC), a highly important post, raised many eyebrows at the time because he was known to Saddam’s victims as one of the former regime officials who had participated in atrocities, including arbitrary executions and amputations.
The appointment was perceived by many Iraqis as an act of hypocrisy and a violation of the purge programme known as the de-Baathification law, enacted by Bremer himself immediately after he assumed office, to bar Saddam’s high and mid-ranking loyalists from the bureaucracy, army and security forces.
The goal was to guide the development of Iraq’s rebuilding at the dawn of the occupation by removing the former ruling Iraqi Baath Party’s influence in the politics of the new Iraq, a measure reminiscent of denazification, the efforts made by the allies to wipe out the Nazi Party in post-World War II Germany.
Proponents of the programme contended that the measure effectively removed Saddam loyalists from public office and influential positions and facilitated the creation of a democratic Iraqi government.
Critics argued that it was ill-conceived and blamed it for the development of armed resistance in the months following the US-led invasion, considering it to be a significant factor in the deteriorating security situation throughout Iraq.
Al-Mahmoud not only survived the purge but also remained in office up to last week, when the country’s de-Baathification panel ordered his purge. During this period he was also made head of the country’s Supreme Federal Court, which rules on constitutional issues and other government matters.
According to an unofficial biography, the 80-year-old Al-Mahmoud started his carrier in 1960, when he was appointed an investigative judge. After the Baath Party came to power in a coup in 1968, he was promoted to the rank of judge in the Iraqi courts. He was later moved to Saddam’s office to work as a legal advisor.
After Saddam’s ouster by the US-led invasion in 2003, Al-Mahmoud was chosen by the US occupation authority as a supervisor for the justice ministry before he was named chief judge at the country’s Cassation Court and later head of the Supreme Judicial Council.
Bremer always went to great lengths to tailor his bombastic vision of post-Saddam Iraq, but Al-Mahmoud’s assignment was by far his greatest blunder, indicating how the United States bungled its years of occupation of Iraq.
Al-Mahmoud did not project the requisite gravitas or the capacity to run the post-Saddam transitional justice system, nor was he known to be committed to a democratic Iraq.
Nevertheless, and as a result of Bremer’s choosing him as the country’s top judge, Al-Mahmoud spent 10 years in the post of Iraq’s top jurist, during which he was responsible for highly sensitive issues such as the endorsement of election results and judging who could form the government.
Last week, however, the Iraqi parliament’s Justice and Accountability Committee, which is tasked with purging government ranks of former members of Saddam’s Party, surprised many Iraqis by voting to remove Al-Mahmoud from his post, citing “strong evidence of links to the now-dissolved Baath Party”.
The evidence was probably provided by a Shia member of parliament, Sabah Al-Saedi, who has been campaigning for years to cleanse the government of Saddam loyalists. Al-Saedi had earlier revealed a list of judges whom he accused of being “Saddamists” and gave two weeks deadline to the committee to purge them.
Al-Saedi, an independent Shia member and an outspoken critic of the government, singled out Al-Mahmoud as being responsible for ordering executions and the amputations of the limbs while working in Saddam’s office.
He accused Al-Mahmoud of being responsible for issuing orders for amputating ears, a punishment Saddam imposed on army deserters during the Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s. “Saddam didn’t sign any execution order without Al-Mahmoud signing it first,” Al-Saedi told a press conference in Baghdad last week.
Al-Saedi’s campaign might now have finally paid off, but it has also fueled tensions in a country already mired in a lingering political crisis and escalating sectarian violence.
Sunni Iraqis have been protesting for two months now, demanding, among other things, the dissolution of the de-Baathification panel and the abolition of the purge law.
For Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, the timing of Al-Mahmoud’s purge could not have been worse. Al-Mahmoud had been expected to rule soon in an appeal by Al-Maliki against a law passed by the parliament last month intended to block him from a third term in office in 2014.
Al-Maliki expected that Al-Mahmoud would overrule the parliament.
Al-Mahmoud has long been considered an ally of Al-Maliki, who helped him to consolidate his grip on power. In 2010 and after inconclusive elections, Al-Mahmoud enabled Al-Maliki to become prime minister although the list of his rival Iyad Allawi, the Iraqiya Bloc leader, won the most seats in the poll.
Later, Al-Mahmoud helped Al-Maliki in sidelining rivals by issuing arrest warrants against politicians and giving interpretations of disputed articles in the constitution in favour of Al-Maliki and his government.
He was even accused of holding trials that did not guarantee minimum rights to suspects.
All this has prompted Al-Maliki to come to Al-Mahmoud’s rescue. On Monday, he fired the head of the de-Baathification panel, Falah Hassan Shanshal, and put one of his cronies in his place.
Al-Maliki also ordered that the decision to purge Al-Mahmoud should be “immediately corrected”.
The response from Al-Maliki’s opponents was swift and fierce, with speaker of the parliament Osama Al-Nujaifi reinstalling Shanshal in his post as head of the committee and dismissing Al-Maliki’s move as unconstitutional.   
Fiery Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, a staunch critic of Al-Maliki, also scoffed at the prime minister for dismissing Shanshal for his “brave position”.
“If any judge, whether Al-Mahmoud or anyone else, is a Baathist, he should be purged,” Al-Sadr said in an interview with the television channel Al-Sharqiya on Monday. “Iraqis suffered under Saddam, and many of them had their ears chopped off and their families deserve retribution,” he said.
Further aggravating the dispute, the de-Baathification panel has refused to rescind the decision, which it said was only reinforcing a purge against Al-Mahmoud made in 2006 but never implemented.
As a result of its removal of Al-Mahmoud from his post, Al-Maliki has lost one of his closest allies in Iraq’s flimsy political system. Iraq could also now enter a new phase of uncertainty, sectarian disputes and security fears.  
However, the move has underscored how much destruction the US occupation has inflicted on Iraq by planting cronies in the country’s nascent political system, including those who shifted loyalties from Saddam to Washington.  
Bremer has been largely blamed for his role in grievously mismanaging the occupation’s civil administration, including dismantling the Iraqi state and dissolving the Iraqi army.
Yet, his worst legacy might be the corrupt and inept Iraqi politicians he and the occupation left behind.

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