Iraqi Prime Minister Accused of Plot to Frame Opposition Leader as Terrorist

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Ayad Allawi says a member of his party is being detained by the notoriously brutal security forces loyal to Nouri al-Maliki, whose grip on power is tightening

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Najim al-Harbi, then the mayor of Muqtadiya, walks with General David Petraeus in this July 2008 photo. Damir Sagolj/Reuters

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi has accused Iraqi security forces of imprisoning and torturing a political opponent of current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, part of an alleged effort to frame Allawi as a sponsor of terrorism. Allawi, in an interview with TheAtlantic.com, presented as evidence a letter that he said was from Najim al-Harbi, a member of his own political party. The letter describes months of detention and brutal mistreatment by government forces, who told Harbi they would relent if he accused Allawi of organizing terrorist attacks against the Iraqi government. Though allegations of abuse have swirled around Maliki's tightly controlled security forces for years, Allawi's charge of a political conspiracy is unprecedented.

Allawi and Maliki were on opposing sides of a months-long political crisis in Iraq after their respective political parties nearly tied the March 2010 national elections. Though the stalemate ended in November with Maliki retaining the Prime Minister's office, the split has raised tension and distrust in Baghdad politics. Allawi's allegations and Harbi's letter are impossible to verify, but the former Prime Minister's accusations against his own government reveal the level of animosity and suspicion that remain in Iraqi politics.

Last fall, after losing the premiership to Maliki in a post-election contest of back-room coalition building, Allawi stood aloof from the gritty politics of government formation, preferring to spend time in London and other foreign capitals in a sort of self-imposed exile reminiscent of Al Gore's bearded soul-searching following the 2000 elections. Allawi felt he had been robbed. A power-sharing agreement was supposed to give him a high-level post in Maliki's administration. Instead, Maliki had cherry-picked allies from Allawi's coalition, sidelined Allawi himself, and consolidated power.

Allawi finally returned to Baghdad shortly after I had left. I had written him several weeks earlier requesting an interview, and he agreed to a phone call. Our conversation, part of Allawi's entrance back onto the political stage, consisted mostly of accusations against the prime minister. But when I asked Allawi about his exclusion from the government, he brushed the topic aside. Instead, the former prime minister accused Maliki of using his control of the armed forces to intimidate, arrest, and even torture his political opponents.

"The Parliament is being terrorized," Allawi told me.

I had heard such charges before. For the past four years, Maliki's opponents have decried his growing control of Iraq's security forces. In the capital, both the army and the police now answer to the Baghdad Operations Command, which is led by a general who receives his orders not through the Ministry of Defense or Interior but from the office of the Prime Minister. Maliki's office also directly funds and commands U.S.-trained counter-terrorism forces, which many Iraqis have nicknamed the "dirty brigades." With so much power in Maliki's hands, critics often accuse him of using it to intimidate and coerce his political rivals. But in the past, when I asked Members of Parliament for evidence, they retreated into generalities. Not so with Allawi.

He had just received a letter, he said, from Najim al-Harbi, an alleged victim of Maliki's abuse. Harbi had run for Parliament in Allawi's coalition, campaigning as a vocal critic of Maliki. Then, on February 7, 2010, he was arrested. Harbi won the March election anyway, despite being imprisoned for the last month of the campaign. But instead of taking a seat in Iraq's Parliament, he has been detained in a secret location, with no public charges listed against him. Nobody has heard from him for over a year. Harbi was allegedly able to get his message out to Allawi while being transfered from one prison to another. Allawi had his staff fax me a copy of the handwritten letter, which he insists is authentic. Dated March 24, 2011, it tells a horrific tale.

•  •  •

The story of Harbi's arrest was widely reported when it happened. He had seemed like a paragon of hope for Iraqi democracy. A member of Iraq's Sunni minority living in the insurgent hotbed of Diyala province, he had given up a life on the farm to join the political process at a time when Sunnis were boycotting elections. Harbi became the mayor of his town, Muqtadiya, and then a leader in the provincial government. He gained popularity among his constituents for fighting terrorism, working with both Iraqi and U.S. forces to coordinate counter-insurgency operations.

Harbi was a collaborator and a traitor in the eyes of insurgents, who tried to kill him again and again. Many of his brothers and cousins served as his bodyguards; in all, more than 20 of his relatives died in bombings and attacks. In September 2009, terrorists kidnapped his young son and dumped his body in a stream. Despite the intimidation, and amid constant grief, Harbi continued his work. At the age of 41, he decided to run for Parliament as a member of Allawi's electoral coalition, which is avowedly secular but represents many Sunnis. In the campaign, Harbi spoke out forcefully against both the abusive practices of the security forces and the controversial de-Baathification commission -- a committee that had already disqualified dozens of parliamentary candidates, disproportionately from Allawi's bloc, for their alleged loyalty to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.

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Ben Van Heuvelen is the managing editor of Iraq Oil Report and a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn, NY.

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