The United States is a lousy friend to have. Take the case of Nuri al Maliki. The Bush Administration raised him from obscurity and installed him as Prime Minister because he was less corrupt, less incompetent, and less friendly with the Iranians than the other guys. We supported Maliki for years, even as he became as incompetent and friendly with Iran as the other guys, learning to be a ruthless authoritarian in the process. As a rule, we’re usually fine with authoritarians, until the other week, when it looked like Maliki might lose control of Iraq to ruthless Islamists. The American public can tolerate a lot, but not the idea that we fought a fruitless war to liberate a country that will now be unliberated by the dread Islamists. So various people who should know better have called on Maliki to resign.
Disclaimer: I’ve never been the President or Prime Minister of Iraq. If Iraq were to reestablish a monarchy, I wouldn’t have a chance at being king. So I can’t really say what’s going on in Nuri al Maliki’s mind. But if I were him, there is no way that I would ever, ever, resign. Because I know what Maliki knows: terrible things happen to the leaders of Iraq when they lose power.
You probably think I mean Saddam. He got off relatively easy. Sure, he was taunted, then hanged, and then his dead body shown on TV. And yes, cell phone footage of the hanging went viral. But he was spared the indignity of his half-brother’s execution a month later, which accidentally turned into a decapitation (oops). I wonder if Saddam ever wished he could have died in a firefight like his sons, who left marginally better looking corpses when they too were shown on TV (don’t click the link if you’re eating).
Here’s the thing Maliki must be thinking about: if I resign, I am going to die a painful death? A painful death followed by the indignity of my mangled body being displayed on TV? There’s a strong precedent for this: Abd al-Karim Qasim, who led the revolution against the Iraqi monarchy in 1958 was executed by a firing squad following a coup in 1963. His body ended up in a television studio, which broadcast footage of his body for hours. Here’s a fun fact: there’s pretty good evidence that the CIA supported Qasim’s overthrow, and wanted him assassinated as early as 1959 – when they enlisted the help of a bumbling thug named – you guessed it – Saddam Hussein. Saddam screwed it up, but he earned a “use chemical weapons free” card from the US, which he cashed in against Iran decades later. Meanwhile, the US decided to support Qasim for awhile because he was anti-Nasser, and we hated Nasser even more in the early 1960s.
Maliki might find some relief in Qasim’s successor, Abd al Salam Arif. He wasn’t shot or hanged, and his body wasn’t displayed on TV. Arif was president for three whole years before he was killed in a plane crash in 1966, likely the result of sabotage by the Ba’athists. He was eventually replaced by his brother – who was President for two years before being overthrown in another CIA-backed coup. Oddly enough, Arif’s brother lived to be 91. Historians suspect he might have been a Highlander. Arif’s daughter and her family were killed in 2004, though it’s not clear if it was because of a 38-year grudge against Arif, or just because Iraq was a terrible place to be a year after the US invasion. Not that the current mess is in any way related to that invasion, of course.
Maliki is being rational in not wanting to die. You know who isn’t? The cousin of one of Iraq’s kings, who wants to restore the monarchy. It’s true that the first king of Iraq,who was also briefly the first king of Syria, even though he was from neither place, (long story) didn’t go too horribly. Faysal I was only 48 when he died in 1933 of a heart attack in Switzerland, and there’s only some suspicion he was poisoned. Plus, history has treated him pretty well — he negotiated full independence from Britain and got a sympathetic portrayal by Alec Guinness in Lawrence of Arabia; Ewan McGregor will play him in the prequel. Faysal’s son Ghazi assumed the throne, leading to a period of political instability when only one defense minister was assassinated and tossed in a ditch. A couple of generals were assassinated, too – but one of them, Bakr Sidqi, was kind of big into massacres, so he probably deserved it. Sidqi also has the distinction of leading the first coup d’etat in a modern Arab country, in 1936, so he was something of a trendsetter – and he did it without the CIA, which didn’t exist yet.
King Ghazi was really into cars. Before he could legally drive, he raced cars on a track in England. Here’s an ethical quiz for you: if someone offers you a really sweet 1936 silver Mercedes Benz convertible, do you take it? Question two: do you take it if the car is from Adolf Hitler? Ghazi did. So it probably served him right that he died in a suspicious car crash in 1939 when he lost control and hit an electric pole.
Ghazi’s son, Faisal II, was only four when his father died, so his uncle, Abd al Illah, was regent for fourteen years until Faysal II came of age in 1953 – the same year his cousin, King Hussein became king of Jordan (also a long story). At this point, you might be asking yourself, “did the young king of Iraq ever tour the US and hang out with Jackie Robinson?” The answer is yes! Now, you might say, “Ok. But did he also meet James Mason?” Guess what? The answer is also yes!
Faysal looks so happy in the pictures (at right), which is touching – because a few years later, he was going to die horribly. Really, really, horribly. In 1958, when Abd al-Karim Qasim led the coup to overthrow the monarchy, Faysal and his family -his uncle, his mother, his sister, fiance, and 6 year old nephew – were cornered in their palace in Baghdad. They tried to surrender, but instead were chased into a courtyard and shot. There’s conflicting reports on whether Faysal was beheaded – but his uncle, who was hated from his time as regent – was first hung in the street, then dismembered with his various parts paraded through the streets. Faysal’s Prime Minister, who served in the position fourteen times beginning in 1930, had a reputation for being a little too pro-Western, anti-democratic, and repressive. He initially escaped capture in Baghdad by disguising himself as a woman, but was eventually captured, shot, and disemboweled. He was buried, dug up, dismembered, and then run over by a car. This process is known in Arabic as being “itchied and scratchied,” hence the inspiration for The Simpsons.
One can see why the current pro-Western, anti-democratic, repressive Prime Minister of Iraq might be concerned about losing power. The only way he can avoid a terrible fate is through repression of any opposition, something he seems very willing to do – and which the United States seems generally happy to ignore. The trick for him now is to make it clear that ISIS is a huge threat (successful so far), and that’s he’s the person who can secure Iraq (less clear). If the ISIS threat were to somehow subside, the US might decide he’s bad for our image and let him fall. Or, if we decide that he’s not the person we want to secure Iraq, he might find himself going to pieces. Literally. Maliki has to be terrified of what will happen when the US turns on him. He might not be ready for his final TV appearance yet.