Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki sat in a gilded chair Tuesday at the start of the three-day Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, the festival of sacrifice.
He rose to greet his guests in a newly furbished palace, built under the late dictator Saddam Hussein.
Politicians came in their elegant dark suits; sheiks approached in their brown robes; generals marched in crisp uniforms, emblazoned with swords and epaulets. All kissed him twice on both cheeks. And Maliki smiled and whispered into their ears, or chuckled.
On previous holidays, he received guests at his office. But his government has completed renovation of one of Hussein’s palaces in central Baghdad, so this holiday he greeted dignitaries in a giant reception room, with calligraphy etched on wood partitions.
Maliki sat by a member of his Islamic Dawa Party, who had been tortured under Hussein’s regime. The elderly man watched proudly as his successors occupied one of their vanished oppressor’s ornate residences, renamed the General Command Palace.
Former Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari entered the spacious hall, and Maliki walked toward him. Jafari, who had abdicated in the face of widespread opposition four years ago, congratulated his successor. Only a year ago, he was hoping to oust Maliki, but the two have ended their feud.
There were others there who had wanted to defeat the prime minister in the national elections in March. But they sat beside him and exchanged confidences.
The spectacle was broadcast on Al Iraqiya, the state television channel, just days after Maliki secured his second term in office after an eight-month battle to stay in power. The vidow was nearly silent, except for the sound of footsteps and chatter from the hall.
On the streets of Baghdad, the images of the palace evoked memories of the late Hussein and other rulers who have dominated Iraq’s history.
In the Sunni Muslim neighborhood of Adhamiya, residents visited their loved ones’ graves and bought sweets from shops on their way to relatives’ houses for the holiday, which marks the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.
At Aleppo Bakery, some spoke with mixed emotions about whether the images of Maliki pointed to a chance for better lives for everyone or a return to government abuses like those of the past.
Ali Sabah, a wiry baker wearing bluejeans, grudgingly called Maliki the strongest man in Iraq and saluted him for rising above Baghdad’s treacherous lot of politicians. He said he saw the premier as the best option in a land of conspirators and credited him for making Adhamiya safe.
“Maliki is a force,” Sabah said. “He can strike the north, south, east and west.”
In Baghdad’s Sadr City, with its blast walls partitioning the packed slum of 2.5 million people, some spoke despairingly of the future.
In a small supermarket, shopper Najem abu Hussein talked sadly of how his country always veered toward strongmen. He said the people would be dragged along and bullied by the next government, no matter who was in charge.
“It is the factor of fear. It still lives inside our minds, " Abu Hussein said. “We are still afraid of everything that comes from the government.”