Nouri al-Maliki: Stern, Unwavering, Heavy-Handed

By Adam Schreck

When a rocket struck in Baghdad's Green Zone in 2007 during a news conference by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the world's top diplomat ducked and looked unsettled. Al-Maliki, however, never flinched, and dismissed the attack as "nothing."

A year later, al-Maliki again stayed calm when an Iraqi journalist angrily threw his shoes at President George W. Bush at another news conference. As Bush deftly ducked out of the way, al-Maliki stood by his guest and even raised a hand to try to block one of the shoes.

As he leaves office, al-Maliki will be remembered for dominating Iraqi politics with a steely demeanor for much of the tumultuous decade that followed the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein.

The 64-year-old al-Maliki led the country through the height of Shiite-Sunni bloodshed. But his heavy-handed rule also helped plunge it back into chaos.

He was unafraid to move against perceived foes - whether they were militants or political rivals - and he projected an image of unflinching determination as the most influential prime minister since the U.S. invasion.

The stern-faced Shiite with a master's degree in Arabic literature was in many ways an unlikely choice to lead Iraq.

He became prime minister in 2006 only after emerging as a compromise candidate atop a shaky coalition. He finally decided Thursday to step aside in favor of Haider al-Abadi after struggling for weeks to stay in power following an election in April.

The grandson of a renowned poet who played a role in the 1920 revolt against the British, al-Maliki fled Saddam's regime in 1979 and was sentenced to death in absentia the next year for his membership in the Dawa Party, Iraq's oldest Shiite political party. He would spend more than two decades in exile in neighboring Syria and Iran.

His Dawa colleagues included Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who would later become his predecessor as prime minister, as well as al-Abadi, nominated as his successor.

While in exile in Syria, he began to use the pseudonym Jawad and became responsible for leading the party's "jihad office," which directed activists inside Iraq.

Al-Maliki returned from exile after Saddam's ouster and was named to a U.S.-brokered consultative council in 2004. He was elected to parliament in Iraq's first post-Saddam balloting and was head of its Security and Defense Committee.

He also served on the committee responsible for purging many members of Saddam's Baath Party from senior posts. Sunnis, who formed the backbone of the party, particularly resented the committee's work and saw it as a tool that sidelined them.

He ascended to the premiership after al-Jaafari, under criticism for rising violence, failed to win parliamentary support for another term after 2005 elections.

Al-Maliki had established himself as a hard-liner when it came to battling the insurgency that pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war as he took office. He stood beside U.S. officials to announce the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the most notorious al-Qaida leader in Iraq. U.S. bombs had killed the militant chief, but its timing and al-Maliki's praise for the security forces that he said aided the raid reinforced his anti-terrorist message.

Before the year was out, al-Maliki signed the execution order for Saddam. The move delighted Iraqi Shiites and Kurds, who suffered under the dictator's rule, but leaked audio of guards taunting Saddam at the gallows angered many Sunnis.

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© 2014 The Associated Press

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