Iraq's Security and Intelligence Gutted in Political Purges, New Cables Show

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Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki fired hundreds of intelligence and security officials to replace them with less capable political loyalists, say U.S. State Department cables from early 2010. A cable sent just days before Iraq's national campaign season began on February 12 predicted "serious harm to the intelligence institutions by drumming out experienced and proficient officers in certain services in the name of de-Ba'athification, regardless if it a cover for political gamesmanship." The Iraqis were fired under the guise of Iraq's "de-Baathification" policy, which forbids anyone associated with Saddam Hussein's Baath party from participating in politics.

The firings, and their successive replacement with inexperienced or Iran-trained loyalists, came as the planned U.S. withdrawal shifted greater responsibility for Iraq's security to the same national institutions Maliki was purging. Though violence in Iraq has greatly improved since the war's worst years, it remains a serious problem, with many residents still fleeing the continued ethnic violence and terrorist attacks.

The Baghdad cables are part of a cache of 183 U.S. State Department communications from the Middle East and North Africa recently published online by Lebanon's Al Akhbar newspaper. It's unclear how Al Akhbar got the cables, which they say are "exclusive," and whether they posted them with the permission of Wikileaks, which has tightly controlled who publishes which of its cables and when.

In the week before Iraq's election began, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad warned that Maliki and his office "directed the removal" of security and intelligence officials, including "some of the highest quality personnel" and "some of the most experienced intelligence officers," over dubious allegations of ties to the long-defunct Baath party. Maliki, the cables say, then replaced those officials with "political officers" from Maliki's Da'Wa party who "lack intelligence or related backgrounds." They cite "troubling" concerns that Maliki's changes were designed "to eliminate internal opposition in the run-up to the elections."

The purges and political replacements targeted the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Interior (which oversees intelligence), the Iraqi Joint Headquarters Intelligence Directorate, and the Iraqi National Intelligence and Investigation Agency. Those agencies handle much of Iraq's internal security and the ongoing battle against still-present sectarian and terrorist groups, both roles that are increasingly important as the U.S. reduces its troop presence. "The politically linked command changes are corrosive to Iraqi Security Force command and control integrity and unit readiness," a February 2010 cable from Baghdad warned. Maliki, they say, was likely "trying to hedge post-election fall-out by seeding security forces and intelligence services with allies."

Replacement officials are described as having dubious qualifications and making negligible contributions to Iraqi security. "Many lived in Iran during the previous regime where they may have received some intelligence training," one cable notes. Some are thought to have forged their education credentials. "Their contributions to intelligence work within [Iraqi intelligence] appear limited thus far." They are described as loyal to Maliki and his political party.

De-Baathification abuses have not been limited to government ministries. In January, hundreds of Iraqi politicians -- mostly members of Sunni political parties competing with Maliki's party -- were banned from running for office for their alleged ties to the Baath party. A U.S. embassy cable from February details a meeting with two of the banned politicians. One, the mayor of a town north of Baghdad, said Iraqi officials told him that accusations against him would be dropped if he agreed not to run for reelection. The second man, a Parliamentary candidate, waved an old photo of him with former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to prove he was not a Baathist. According to the cable, he "received numerous phone calls from a foreign source telling him to pay up to $100,000 to get himself reinstated."

In nationwide elections in March, Maliki's party managed to win 89 of 325 seats in Parliament, two less than challenger Ayyad Allawi's party. But neither party was able to organize a ruling majority coalition, deadlocking Iraq's government for seven difficult months. In November, a U.S.-brokered compromise kept Maliki as Prime Minister.

Image: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki votes in the March elections. By Ali Abbas/Getty.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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