Mohammed Husayn Jassim wasn’t surprised when a notorious Iraqi police major arrested him on a lonely road outside an American military base as he left a meeting with U.S. special forces. The deputy governor of Diyala province knew that warrants hung over him and other Sunni members of the provincial council. He had heard the rumors that he could be grabbed at any moment.
Still, while others hid, Jassim had kept showing up for work. He was a veteran of the war against the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq, and when the fighting ended and politics resumed, he was elected in January 2009 to the provincial council, a mix of Shiites, Sunnis and ethnic Kurds that carried hopes for a new era of power-sharing and peace.
“When I applied for this job, I knew I would face danger,” Jassim said to a confidant recently from a prison where he remains incarcerated almost a year later, awaiting his day in court. “I stood in the face of terrorism when nobody could defend our areas. Today, the criminal becomes innocent and the innocent are terrorists.”
With Iraqi politicians wrangling over who will lead the country for the next four years, the fate of Diyala’s politicians offers a cautionary tale for Iraq’s democracy.
Critics accuse Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s Shiite-led central government of using the rubric of terrorism to crack down against those it sees as enemies, even when they are elected officials.
Nowhere is that more evident than in Diyala, a strategic province of delicate sectarian sensibilities bordering Iran, whose provincial council is now led by the region’s Sunni Arab majority. At least nine of the 17 Sunni Arabs on the council have been jailed or threatened with arrest in what appears to be an organized campaign directed from Baghdad.
Along with Jassim, two current council members have been detained or handed over to the elite Baghdad Brigade force attached to Maliki’s office. The leading Sunni on the previous provincial council is also under arrest. All four men have been kept incommunicado for months on end, much of the time in special jails under the jurisdiction of the prime minister’s office.
Critics say Diyala is a textbook example of what can happen when local feuds combine with an authoritarian central ruler. Supporters of the detained council members contend that corrupt local figures with ties to Baghdad have played upon Maliki’s fears of the Sunni Arabs in Diyala to enlist his help in pushing rivals aside.
This “pattern of action is leading many Sunnis to believe the Shiite majority will never allow them to ‘win’ if they play by the rules. People are losing faith in democracy,” said Patricia Thomson, who advised the Diyala provincial government on behalf of the State Department in 2009 and early 2010.
“Far too often, it is not clear on whose orders they are being arrested, what evidence supports their arrest, where they are being held, and when their cases will be resolved,” Thompson said, citing “credible” allegations of false statements being made against those picked up. “This lack of transparency is indicative of an emerging authoritarian state, not a democracy.”
Maliki’s ruling coalition insists that the government is upholding the law, carrying out arrest warrants issued by the judicial system.
Essam Misr, a representative of Maliki’s party in Diyala, emphasized that the warrants were issued by the courts and asserted that the politicians facing arrest lacked the proper character to run for office.
But Diyala’s Sunni Arab governor and his supporters contend the arrests since 2009 have been payback for not offering better posts to representatives of Maliki’s party and the council’s efforts to dismiss local officials with strong ties to the central government.
The first raid by the special forces under Maliki’s command came in August 2008 and ended in the detention of Hussein Zubaidi, the senior Sunni Arab on the previous council. Zubaidi had been widely touted as Diyala’s next governor. Instead, he has been detained for two years.
After initial charges were dismissed last year in Baghdad criminal court, new counts of terrorism were brought against him. Though a man who had accused Zubaidi of committing sectarian killings later said he had made up the charges, a judge nonetheless sentenced Zubaidi to life in prison last week. Supporters say Zubaidi has been attacked in his cell block several times since the verdict.
“He is a political prisoner under the pretext of a criminal case,” said his uncle Mohsen Zubaidi.
The next strike came in April 2009 as the newly elected provincial council met to pick its governor. A representative of the Baghdad Brigade strode in and announced that he had warrants for at least three Sunni council members. Confronted with the presence of U.S. diplomats and after phone calls to Baghdad, the officer finally backed down.
“I found it offensive that the executive branch would come into the provincial council on the first day of the new council to arrest people,” said Thomson, who attended the session.
The council proceeded with its meeting and elected a cross-section of leaders: a Sunni governor, a Kurdish council chairman, and a deputy chairman from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a Shiite rival of Maliki’s governing coalition.
A month later, soldiers from Baghdad returned, saying they had orders to detain the council’s leading Sunni member, Abed Jabbar Ibrahim.
The council chairman, Abed Talib Mohammed Hussein, says he went to his office to call the U.S. military but that when he returned to the council chamber, Ibrahim had already been led out, blindfolded. When Hussein raced to the Humvee that Hussein had been taken to, the soldiers from Baghdad pointed their guns at him.
A captain came over and kissed Hussein and told him Ibrahim would be gone only 15 minutes.
Ibrahim has now been held for 18 months. His family has not seen him even once.
“All of these accusations happened under false pretenses and happened because the political blocs clashed,” Hussein said. Ibrahim “is an exemplary figure and believes in democracy.”
The arrest had a devastating effect on the council.
Several representatives went into hiding, showing up for meetings only sporadically. The council hesitated to move forward on decisions, such as whether to push for the resignation of the provincial police chief sent from Baghdad.
Council members across sectarian lines echo the belief that the arrests are politically driven, alluding to the deep-rooted power struggle in Baghdad that plays out in pockets such as Diyala.
“Some political figures or blocs believe in democracy,” said the deputy council chairman, Sadiq Jaffar, a Shiite. “There are those who have no political experience and want to achieve their goals by any means.”
And council members say they worry about what they see as an absence of due process in the arrests.
“We should know what the results are. Do we have the right as members of the council and blocs to know the status for the investigation, what kind of charges, or not?” said Jaffar. “We sometimes don’t even know if a warrant is issued or activated until the person is detained.”
Meanwhile Jassim, the deputy governor, has been transferred to a general detention facility from the notorious Baghdad Brigade facility under Maliki’s control. That facility was cited in an internal U.S. government cable last January noting allegations of torture against some prisoners there.
Some sources say Jassim confessed to the charges against him while he was being held.
Now he awaits a trial that is supposed to begin soon, sharing space alongside Al Qaeda sympathizers and militiamen. There are fights in his cell block. He worries about getting killed.
But those who know Jassim say he reflects on his fight against Al Qaeda, on his relatives who died in the sectarian violence, on the homes and lives destroyed in the fighting. And he is undeterred, they say, in his wish to serve Diyala.
From jail he has vowed: “I will keep supporting the democratic changes in my country.”