Feature

The Man Who Would Be King

In the five years since taking office, Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has consolidated a dangerous amount of power. Now, his citizens are angry and his opponents scheme. But is it too late?

Iraqi government forces arrived at the headquarters of the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory (JFO) at about 2 a.m. on Feb. 23, half a block from Baghdad's Firdos Square, where eight years earlier news cameras had captured the iconic toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue. The soldiers jumped out of their Humvees and began trying to break down the front door. Inside, the building's night watchman had been sleeping in his ground-floor apartment. He woke to the banging and opened the door, where he was met by a score of armed men, some wearing black clothing and ski masks, some in military fatigues stripped of any identifying insignia.

"Where is the JFO?" the officers demanded.

They didn't identify themselves. They didn't have to. As the government would later confirm, these forces answered to the Baghdad Operations Command, which coordinates all security forces in the capital and reports directly to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office. Since 2007, Maliki has bypassed several layers of civilian and military leadership, establishing a direct line of control over key security forces, including Iraq's 54th and 56th brigades, as well as an elite counterterrorism force trained and supported by the U.S. Special Operations Command. In concert with the "surge," this strategy helped Iraq's government regain control of the streets from a virulent insurgency. "We're working literally day and night with the Baghdad Operation[s] Command," said Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil, commander of U.S. troops in Baghdad, on Feb. 16, 2007, at the dawn of a joint U.S.-Iraqi operation that would soon bring remarkable security gains to the capital. Some four years later, the Baghdad Operations Command continues to act against entities deemed dangerous to the state.

The night watchman pointed the officers up a narrow stairway toward the JFO's second-story offices. They ran upstairs and bashed their way in. More soldiers entered the building. They blindfolded the night watchman and bound his arms and legs.

The JFO's headquarters consists of a reception area, a few small offices, and a conference room. Like most local NGOs, it operates on a shoestring budget, in affiliation with a few larger international organizations like Reporters Without Borders and the Society of Professional Journalists. Its mission is to protect the freedom of the press. On a practical level, this means the JFO is the central hub to which journalists in Iraq report censorship and abuse. Their records were stored in file cabinets and computers, all of which the security forces ransacked. They confiscated seven laptop and desktop computers, external hard disks, paper archives, five handicams, and one boxy gray television camera, an antique souvenir that had last been used in the 1950s. The raid lasted three hours. When it was over, the watchman was unbound and left to comfort his frightened wife and child.

Fellow journalists in Baghdad were amazed -- though not surprised -- to hear of such a brazen government attack on the press. A mutual friend arranged for me to meet Ziyad al-Ajili, director of the JFO. I drove across town to his office, which staffers had quickly returned to a state of tidiness. A broken door frame and the absence of desktop computers were the only traces of the break-in.

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Ajili is in his 40s and looks weary beyond his years. Reclining in the chair behind his desk, he told me the raid was part of a broader campaign of press censorship and intimidation. Two days later, on Friday, Feb. 25, protesters were planning a "Day of Rage," modeled after the demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia, which had gained momentum through the news media. Maliki was doing all he could to smother the discontent. On the eve of the national protests, he gave a televised speech insinuating that the day was being planned by former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party and would be attacked or co-opted by al Qaeda operatives. "I call on you," he said, "to thwart the enemy plans by not participating in the demonstrations tomorrow, because it's suspicious and it will give rise to the voice of those who destroyed Iraq." If the Iraqi authorities thought they might need to censor the journalists who would amplify such anti-government voices, Ajili reasoned, then it made good sense to take out the office responsible for cataloging such abuses. "The raid was organized to stop our oversight ability," he told me.

Iraq's leaders were nervous. Since late January, demonstrators had begun taking to the streets by the hundreds, then thousands. They were fed up. A year earlier, Iraqis had braved terrorist bombs to vote in national elections; then, their new leaders spent more than nine months haggling behind concrete blast walls in the fortified Green Zone over who would be in charge. The success of free and fair elections had given way to a uniquely democratic challenge -- nobody had won an outright majority -- and Iraq's leaders were by disposition unprepared to meet it. The former prime minister, Ayad Allawi, appeared to have the most seats in the parliament, but neither he nor Maliki, who led the second-largest bloc, was willing to compromise his claim on the premiership.

As summer arrived, the heat soared above 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Baghdadis received less than five hours of electricity per day; their idle air-conditioners served as constant reminders of their government's failure to provide even basic services. Unemployment was stagnant. And though suicide attacks and roadside bombs had subsided since the hellish days of 2006 and 2007, unpredictable explosions still blew apart lives and families. By November, Maliki had outmaneuvered Allawi into a second term. The new government looked a lot like the old government.

On Iraq's Day of Rage, tens of thousands gathered in major cities across the country to denounce the government. I went to Baghdad's Tahrir Square and spent the day speaking with some of the roughly 6,000 demonstrators. A couple of thousand had gathered beneath a monument depicting the 1958 overthrow of Iraq's former monarchy, while several thousand more surged toward a 15-foot-tall concrete blast wall that had been erected overnight at the entrance to the Jumhuriya Bridge, which leads from Tahrir Square to the Green Zone. One overarching theme seemed to unify their disparate complaints: The government their leaders had formed was not what they had voted for. "Nouri al-Maliki is a thief!" they chanted over and over again.

"I was dreaming for a change in Iraq, but not this change," said Ali Khadem, who is 50 years old, college-educated, and unemployed. He pointed to the blast wall separating the protesters from the fortified halls of power -- a sensible precaution against a potential riot, but also an offensive symbol of the government's isolation from its citizens. "I just would like to feel I am human," Khadem said.

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To the extent that Iraq's burgeoning protest movement made international headlines, the protesters looked like an incoherent lot. What were they going to do, after all -- overthrow their democratically elected government, barely two months after it had been formed, in the name of democracy? Without an entrenched authoritarian regime to oppose, the protests didn't appear to fit the regional narrative. If anything, they seemed like a worrisome threat to a fragile democracy that was just beginning, if haltingly, to take shape. At least, this was the story that Maliki was pushing.

Yet from the perspective of the JFO and the demonstrators, the protests weren't weakening Iraq's democracy so much as exposing it as a sham. The March 2010 elections might have been free and fair, but after Maliki's reshuffling of the military, he now had so few checks on his power that nobody could stop his security forces' draconian tactics. Although Maliki appeared to be building a national unity government, he was also constructing what his critics have called a "shadow cabinet" -- using his growing authority as prime minister to draw the real lines of power only through his political allies. "It's a government run by one person, by one party," Allawi told me. "People are losing faith in what we are calling 'democracy.'"

On the Day of Rage in Baghdad, shortly before sunset, a phalanx of several hundred riot police in black Kevlar armor began beating their batons against their shields in unison. Security forces shot water cannons into the crowd and detonated sound bombs to scatter the protesters, and then chased them away by firing live ammunition above their heads. Scores were beaten and arrested. Around the country, more than 20 protesters were killed. But later that evening, for anyone who wished to believe that Iraq is a budding democracy, the government put on a good show. In a quiet Tahrir Square cleansed of all dissent, state television staged a live interview with one of Maliki's security chiefs, who assured the world that all was well in Iraq. "Our protesting brothers who have legitimate demands acted in a highly patriotic and civil manner," said Qassim Atta, spokesman for Baghdad Operations Command. "Thank God the protest did not see any live ammunition fired against the protesters."

In fact, the government lashed out against both protesters and journalists with shocking violence. In the two weeks following the Day of Rage, not only were more than two dozen protesters killed, but nine other media organization offices were raided, 33 journalists arrested, and 12 reporters beaten by security forces, according to the reports that the JFO was able to confirm in its diminished capacity.


Maliki first gained the premiership because he seemed relatively weak. The December 2005 national elections had failed to produce a clear winner, and Iraq's fractious new parliamentarians were able to agree on Maliki largely because he was nobody's first choice. A lesser-known leader of Iraq's Shiite majority, Maliki had long-standing credentials in the Dawa Party that had opposed Saddam Hussein. He was religious enough to pass muster with Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and came to power with the electoral support of more hard-line Shiite political blocs -- those led by Moqtada al-Sadr and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. Yet he was secular enough to avoid sparking a major sectarian controversy with mainstream Sunnis, and he had a good relationship with leaders in Iraq's semiautonomous northern Kurdish region, with whom he had worked to oppose Saddam. Maliki was also receptive to American help, and he had a good rapport with President George W. Bush. According to a former senior official in the Bush administration, the two presidents had weekly phone calls in which they would share complaints about the hostile politicians in their respective legislatures.

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When Maliki took office, he inherited an Iraqi state that was, like his political persona, remarkably undefined. The 2005 Constitution had left unanswered several of the most important and contentious questions about the shape of the country. The insurgency was gaining momentum, and the tough tradeoffs of democracy were simply too thorny to sit around and debate. As a result, when Iraqis voted to ratify the 2005 Constitution in a national referendum, they approved a document that pictured the new state in an attractive soft focus.

It was relatively easy, for example, to agree that security forces should be controlled by civilian political leaders. (But how do you protect against the politicization of those forces?) The oil sector should benefit all Iraqi people. (But who determines the right policy or how the revenue is divvied up?) The judiciary should function as a check on the executive and legislature. (But how do you ensure its independence?) All these parentheticals, the Constitution says, should be decided through follow-up legislation, all of which the parliament was supposed to pass in its first term. Instead, as the body count ticked upward, Iraq's leaders became preoccupied with impending civil war and the perpetual emergencies of reconstruction. In this atmosphere of fuzzy jurisprudence and in response to the existential threat of the insurgency, Maliki began to solidify his rule.

According to the Constitution, the prime minister is also the commander in chief of the armed forces. Maliki took this mandate a step further and began to assume control of several key brigades. On Feb. 5, 2007, he established the Baghdad Operations Command, which unified all police and military forces in the capital under the command of a single general. Security forces in the capital thus began bypassing the traditional Defense Ministry chain of command and instead took orders from an office directly subordinate to the prime minister. In April 2007, Iraq's two counterterrorism brigades, consisting of 4,000 men trained extensively by the U.S. Special Operations Command, began reporting to and receiving funding from a counterterrorism bureau in Maliki's office, rather than the Defense Ministry. The structure allowed Maliki, in an atmosphere of ethnosectarian suspicion, to empower military commanders he could trust.

He replicated this model through many of Iraq's other provinces, and it proved essential in breaking the insurgency. Both Sadr and Hakim, the hard-line Shiite leaders, commanded powerful militias that perpetrated some of the worst sectarian violence in post-invasion Iraq; any restoration of law and order would require sweeping clear the militia strongholds in the southern city of Basra and Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood. Yet Maliki had also depended on both men for the political backing that had brought him to power. To turn against them, Maliki needed to establish a power base that could survive an erosion of political support.

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The prime minister's increasing control of the military came to a dramatic crescendo as he created the Basra Operations Command in August 2007 and then, seven months later, launched a massive offensive to gain control of Basra city, the hub of Iraq's oil sector. Maliki himself traveled to Basra to supervise the attack. Beginning on March 25, 2008, eight Iraqi Army brigades, along with Air Force, police, and special forces units, launched Operation Charge of the Knights. It wasn't a clear-cut victory -- Iraqi forces met stiff resistance from well-armed, savvy militia fighters and ultimately depended on U.S. and British backup -- but the operation was ultimately a success. One month later, Iraqi forces controlled the streets. It was a landmark demonstration of Maliki's power. A year earlier, by contrast, when the insurgency had been metastasizing into a full-blown civil war, nobody could have imagined that either the Iraqi military or Maliki could have mustered the force to take Basra from the militias.

The "surge" consisted of not only an increase in troop levels but also -- perhaps more importantly -- a shift in strategy, tactics, and military organization. Maliki's show of strength was one essential element, and in the wake of the Basra operation he oversaw enormous security gains. In 2007, according to the Iraq Body Count project, an average of 62 people were dying every day in bombings and shootings; by 2009, that number had fallen to 12. Intelligence analysts now broadly agree that insurgents in Iraq can no longer control territory. Groups like al Qaeda in Iraq do still carry out terrible acts of violence, but, as the International Crisis Group (ICG) has written, "In and of itself, the insurgency no longer is a real threat; what is left of it is banking on mounting spectacular attacks in order to alter political dynamics."

With these security gains, Iraq's primary challenge has now shifted. Terrorist violence is still an enormous and regular threat, of course: Roadside bombs target U.S. and Iraqi security forces; insurgents sabotage essential infrastructure; assassins murder government officials with silenced pistols; and suicide attackers carry out coordinated operations designed to rack up the highest body count possible. But as horrible as terrorist violence is, the ICG has observed that "it will take a change in the country's political dynamics in order for [insurgent] attacks to have any significant effect" on the stability of the state. The existential threat to Iraq no longer comes from isolated attacks, but from the risks of political combustion.

Maliki's growing power may now pose such a risk. Despite his security gains, he has not normalized command and control of the military. In fact, he now functions not only as commander in chief but also as the acting head of the Defense and Interior ministries, which run the Army and the police, respectively. Not only is Maliki effectively a commanding general, but he is also the chief administrator of the country's security forces. In 2009, in light of this worrying trend, the Guardian characterized Maliki's rule as authoritarian; Maliki responded by suing the British newspaper for nearly a million dollars and seeking to close its Baghdad bureau.

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According to political allies and Western diplomats who have worked with Maliki, he isn't so much power-hungry as deeply cynical and mistrusting. The Dawa Party, which Maliki joined as a young man, was hunted by Saddam's Baathist regime. Even those living in exile -- like Maliki, who lived in Syria and Iran for more than 20 years -- organized themselves into isolated cells to protect against the regime's spies and limit the information that any one member might divulge if he were captured or compromised. Maliki's early career was saturated in perpetual suspicion.

Such extreme caution was necessary under Saddam. Similarly, Maliki's centralization of power seemed essential in an atmosphere of civil war. But those conditions have now changed; Maliki has not.

 

For anyone trying to check Maliki's power, last year's election seemed to provide an opening. To his admirers, Ayad Allawi represented a more enlightened brand of politics. A secular Shiite who had lived much of his adult life in exile in London, he chafed at the ethnosectarian identity politics in which Maliki had so adeptly triangulated. Instead, Allawi assembled a political coalition under a secular and nationalist banner. Although his allies were largely members of Iraq's Sunni minority, he pitched his rhetoric to an audience that identified as "Iraqi" before "Shiite," "Sunni," or "Kurd," and his candidacy represented the possibility of a state built on such an identity.

In something of a surprise victory, Allawi's coalition won two more seats in the parliament than Maliki's Shiite electoral bloc, which took barely a quarter of the legislature. Nobody commanded anything close to a majority. In theory, everyone had leverage to balance the distribution of power in the new government. But the reality was a political stalemate. Maliki had spent his first term accumulating so much power in the prime minister's office that no other position in the government promised nearly as much authority. For the two leading candidates, government formation was a zero-sum proposition, and neither was willing to compromise. Shortly after the election results were announced, Maliki made a televised statement in which he called many of Allawi's political allies "terrorists." Allawi, for his part, said that his plurality gave him a constitutional right to begin forming a government -- a stance that precluded negotiation with Maliki and that Allawi stuck to stubbornly, even after Iraq's high court ruled against his claim.

As negotiations stalled last summer, the U.S. Embassy and Vice President Joe Biden began pushing a power-sharing deal that would give Maliki a second term but also reduce his power. The keystone of the agreement was the creation of a new executive body, a so-called "National Council for Strategic Policy," which Allawi would lead. According to senior U.S. diplomats and Iraqi parliamentarians involved in the negotiations, the council was supposed to have authority over the government's economic and security policies. Allawi would function as something like a chairman of the board to Maliki's CEO.

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On Nov. 10, 2010, Maliki and Allawi signed a power-sharing agreement that largely followed the American outline. Beyond the new policy council, the deal also called for Maliki to loosen his grip on the security forces. The brigades currently answering to his office would instead report to the Defense or Interior ministries. If implemented, the agreement represented a major rebalancing of power.

Maliki's signature was no guarantee, however. And the policy council, in particular, was probably doomed from the beginning. I asked Jason Gluck, a constitutional expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace and a former advisor to the Iraqi parliament, what an ironclad power-sharing agreement would have looked like. "The only way [the policy council] could have had real teeth would have been through a constitutional amendment, and that could not have happened within the time frame of the government formation process," he told me. Without legal grounding in the Constitution, he explained, the policy council "would forever be at the mercy of its creator."

Allawi's only leverage was his political bloc, whose participation Maliki needed in order to form a government that included Sunnis. But the day after they signed the power-sharing agreement, Allawi seemed to give up. Instead of continuing to negotiate the details of the deal, the longtime expat, whose family still lives in London, left the country. Maliki immediately began recruiting Allawi's top Sunni allies into his administration. Tariq al-Hashimi became vice president, a prominent but largely ceremonial post. Saleh al-Mutlaq became a deputy prime minister. "I call this government not a power-sharing government, but a position-sharing government," says Joost Hiltermann, a Middle East expert with the International Crisis Group. "They distributed the positions, everyone who got the positions was happy, and then the pressure was off to do the real serious work of building in checks and balances."

On the face of it, Iraq has a government of national unity: Every major electoral bloc is represented. But not everyone has power. For example, Mutlaq -- an outspoken critic of Maliki -- became "deputy prime minister for services." This office doesn't exist in the Constitution. In the official letter that created the position, Maliki wrote that Mutlaq would be chairing a committee consisting of 10 other ministers with portfolios in the service sector; but beyond this, the letter doesn't define any responsibilities, nor does it vest Mutlaq with any authority over his fellow ministers. On paper, he sits very high atop the government flowchart. But his power runs through the prime minister.

By comparison, Maliki created another deputy position for one of his top allies, the former oil minister, Hussain al-Shahristani. As with Mutlaq, the newly created "deputy prime minister for energy" post doesn't exist in the Constitution. But because Shahristani is Maliki's protégé and has the prime minister's backing, some of Iraq's most powerful ministers, including those in charge of the country's oil and electricity, are functionally subordinate to him. This arrangement has freed Maliki to award some of those key ministries to political rivals, while simultaneously keeping them under his control.

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Maliki can draw these arbitrary lines of authority because there are no bylaws clarifying the structure of the executive branch. The November power-sharing deal had called for such a measure, which might help circumscribe the prime minister's power. But who is going to hold Maliki to his word? Most of his biggest rivals -- except Allawi -- are now part of the cabinet. One of Allawi's allies, Fatah al-Sheikh, characterized Maliki's maneuver: "He guaranteed that Sunnis would take part in the government, so now it's possible to get rid of Allawi."

Maliki has created at least seven new ministries, an additional vice presidency, and a third deputy prime minister post to accommodate the political leaders who gave their support in exchange for a slice of the executive branch. Meanwhile, Allawi's National Council for Strategic Policy hasn't yet been convened. The power-sharing agreement said it should be formed within 30 days, but Maliki has since argued that putting the country's prime minister and president in a subordinate role to Allawi would contradict the Constitution, according to the Kurdish parliamentary leader Fuad Masum and the parliamentary leader of Allawi's political bloc, Salman al-Jumaily.

Allawi believes Maliki was never serious about honoring the November deal. He told me he has given up on the policy council and won't join Maliki's administration. "There is no power sharing at all," he said. Others cast equal blame on Allawi and his allies for failing to hold Maliki accountable. "The power-sharing deal would have happened if [Allawi's coalition] didn't start to implode, basically, with defections," said Hiltermann. "People rushed to take these positions, fearing that somebody else would take them. They didn't care about power sharing."

As a result, the parliament poses little organized opposition to the executive's power. Mustafa al-Hiti, a former parliamentarian and Allawi confidant, explained it to me like this: "Every person says, if you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. You keep my ministers out of questioning, I'll keep your ministers out of questioning." The legislative branch fails to function as a check on the executive branch because all the major parliamentary blocs have a stake in the cabinet. In this atmosphere of opacity, abuses of power are endemic. "This is the physiology," Hiti said. "In order to have a strong muscle, you have to lift big weights. In order to have a democracy, you have to have opposition."

 

Two days after the Day of Rage ended with a stage-managed government television broadcast in a pristine Tahrir Square, Maliki put on another piece of political theater. In a televised speech, he gave his cabinet ministers a 100-day ultimatum to show progress or risk losing their jobs. There didn't appear to be much substance to this initiative -- no specific benchmarks defining what would qualify as "progress," no clear consequences for failure -- but pundits and politicians alike marked Maliki's zero hour brightly on the political calendar. The deadline passed on June 7. The prime minister declined to fire anyone, and he even suggested he had never promised to do such a thing. "There are those who want to confuse the concept of this initiative," Maliki said on state television. "They want to push people to force ministers to be accountable for a few things that naturally should take more time." Maliki's critics have seized on the government's failure to show progress or enforce accountability, even on the prime minister's own terms. Protest organizers have vowed to ramp up demonstrations immediately.

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As Maliki shows signs of weakening politically, Allawi appears to be launching an effort to regain some leverage. Since late March, he told me, he has been courting Sadr and Hakim, who together represent the Shiite bloc that was Maliki's political keystone during government formation, as well as Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish region. On paper, at least, these leaders could represent a majority of the parliament's seats.

"Nobody is very happy about the situation, and that's why I believe the best way for Iraq is to have an opposition," Allawi told me. "I won't be surprised if at some stage there will be a call for a vote of no confidence, and I don't even rule out that the people would call for a new, premature election in the country."

But if Maliki is anything after all these years, he's a political survivor. Already, he has moved to get ahead of the dissent: In addition to the 100-day initiative, he forced three unpopular provincial governors from his own party to resign, signed a budget that shifted billions of dollars toward popular social services, and constructed an emergency plan to meet a portion of Iraq's outstanding electricity demand. On one level, like many embattled leaders in the region, Maliki is responding to the protesters. Government incompetence, cronyism, failure to supply basic services -- he's made gestures on all scores.

Those moves bought Maliki some time, but now Iraq is heating back up. Last summer, even before the Arab Spring, thousands of angry Iraqis took to the streets when the electrical grid utterly failed to power their air-conditioners; and now, the new electricity minister has projected similar shortages this summer. Sadr, who has largely discouraged his followers from protesting, has begun mobilizing his obedient throngs in demonstrations designed to pressure Maliki away from extending the Status of Forces Agreement with the United States. The cleric controls 40 seats in the parliament -- a bloc that has been essential to Maliki's political survival -- and Sadr has threatened to bolt from the government if Maliki allows U.S. troops to stay beyond the end of this year. On June 10, hundreds of protesters took to the streets again, but demonstrations were curtailed quickly by club-weilding government security agents.

From Allawi's perspective, the combination of new protests, political fracturing, and unmet grievances could turn into a final trump card -- the ability to threaten the downfall of the government. Such brinkmanship could end badly in many ways. In one scenario, Iraq could fall into a dangerous power vacuum. In another, Maliki would use the specter of such danger to extend his powers further. In theory, of course, the birth of an opposition movement could also represent an opportunity. Lawmakers could treat their massive pile of unfinished legislation as an occasion to put some meat on the Constitution's bones. The parliament could flex its oversight authority and audit the cabinet ministries. Allawi could use his leverage to pressure Maliki to implement the terms of the power-sharing deal. Iraq's leaders could indeed build the institutions of a democracy.

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But that doesn't seem to be everyone's priority. Five days after the JFO's offices were raided, they received another visit from the security forces. Atta, the spokesman for Baghdad Operations Command, had come to apologize. Sitting in the small office that Ajili, the director, shares with his deputy, Atta explained they had believed incorrectly that the JFO was functioning as a field office for two anti-government satellite television channels, al-Baghdadia and al-Sharqiya, that are critical of Maliki's government and now broadcast from abroad, having been banned from working in Iraq. "Mistakes happen," Atta said.

Then, at a news conference in the JFO's conference room, Atta pledged to return all the confiscated material that afternoon. (Much of it remains unreturned.) He apologized again, this time publicly -- not for the flagrant intimidation of the media, but for targeting the wrong organization.

When I spoke with Ajili a week later, he wondered aloud why he had accepted Atta's apology. I asked whether he had been threatened. Ajili had been speaking with me through an interpreter, but he suddenly broke into English. "There is no need for threats," Ajili said. "They have in their hands the power, so there is no need."

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Feature

Pool Party at Saleh's

My surreal afternoon with Yemen's president.

The first time I met Ali Abdullah Saleh, I had recently emerged from the ocean. I was unkempt, hair damp and tangled, legs unshaven. It was last December, and Yemen's president was visiting the island of Socotra, off Yemen's southern coast. The president invited the handful of tourists on the beach to sit with him in a three-walled hut overlooking the sea. We exchanged a few banal phrases, mostly about how lovely the island was, and later ate young goat and rice with Saleh and his entourage.

Most of the world knows Saleh through news reports -- as the man with a keen understanding of carrot-and-stick politics and an uncanny ability to navigate the country's factional, tribal currents. But with the president's return uncertain after he departed to Saudi Arabia on June 4 to seek treatment for shrapnel wounds sustained in a rocket attack, I keep returning to a tense hour that I spent with the long-serving dictator this January.

My experience with Saleh would have ended after our first meeting on the beach had I not also met Abdul Aziz Abdul Ghani, the ex-prime minister and head of the Shura Council, a legislative body whose members are appointed by the president. Ghani had gone to Colorado College, where my mother worked for 36 years. We had a friendly and benign chat about Colorado Springs -- he knew the street I had grown up on. He struck me as a soft-spoken, fatherly type.

A month later, back on the Yemeni mainland, I dug up Ghani's contact information. It was Jan. 26 and, only the day before, the people of Egypt had taken to the streets en masse in a fast-moving revolution that would soon topple President Hosni Mubarak. The next day, thousands of young men and a few women would take to the streets of Sanaa in Yemen's first major opposition protest. I sent Ghani a quick email saying hello and thanking him for his crew's hospitality in Socotra. In Yemen, personal connections are everything, and I thought a high-level contact might come in handy in the future. I might even get a free lunch out of it.

A few hours after sending the email, Ghani called. We exchanged pleasantries, and then he got down to business.

"Can you come to the palace?" he said. "To the club? Can you be ready in half an hour? We'll send a car." It was all very sudden.

Forty minutes later I was waiting outside the local pizza place when an unmarked black Mercedes pulled up and the man inside waved. He turned out to be the protocol officer, though he didn't give me any protocol advice. Too bad; I could have used it.

The presidential palace is an outwardly unremarkable structure that sits just to the east of Haddah, Sanaa's diplomatic area. To get into the complex, we passed through two sets of nondescript walls. I hopped into a second car once inside -- some kind of Jeep or Land Rover. I tried not to step on the two AK-47s on the floor of the back seat.

We passed through another two sets of walls before encountering another security checkpoint. The officers took my purse and phone, though they let me keep a notebook and a few business cards.

A few minutes later, a straight-backed attendant in red opened my door and showed me into the palace club. I walked up a short flight of stairs into the wide, open space, decorated with warm wood and upholstered in red and gold. I looked enviously at a door to my left, which opened to a bright, well-equipped gym.

In the middle of the club was a billiards table; Ghani was holding a cue, talking to Saleh.

I remember the president's cheeky smile as he looked up at me. The mischievous expression on his face said something along the lines of "Ta da! You weren't expecting this, now, were you?"

I was intrigued. I thought I might learn something -- that I might gain some great, exclusive insight into the man behind the curtain.

I went over to shake hands, looking down at the president's gray, receding hairline. Saleh is not a large man. I'm 5 feet, 11 inches, and, in 3-inch heels, I towered over him. He was wearing odd glasses, tinted but not dark. He waved me into an upholstered wooden chair. A flute of orange juice appeared within minutes on the table beside me; I sipped it and looked around the room. On my right, an enormous glass wall looked into the swimming pool, decorated with a seahorse mosaic.

I watched Ghani and the president play pool. Neither was making many shots, but they finished their game and I asked who wanted to play me. Ghani handed me the cue, and the president told me to break. I looked at the lush crimson carpet below the table and considered whether to take off my shoes. It was a hot day, and my socks were both hole-riddled and not particularly clean. I left on my chunky, brown boots and took my first shot, failing to sink a ball.

The president took his cue and nudged the ball into a more favorable position on the table.

So the president of Yemen cheats at pool, I thought.

"Haram alayk," I scolded. Shame on you. The president burst into laughter and gestured toward Ghani.

"Did you hear what she said?" he chortled (in Arabic). "Shame on you." As the president laughed at me, I wondered whether he had understood my challenge. Had anyone ever bothered to explain the rules -- did he even know that he was cheating? Perhaps he was just amused by the white-girl-who-speaks-Arabic novelty, or did not mind being called out in a private setting by a young woman with no influence or standing.

Our conversation was at times stilted because my Arabic is a confused patois of formal Arabic and Yemeni dialect. Saleh did not seem to speak formal Arabic at all. A few times I would say something in the formal language, and Ghani would translate back into dialect.

The president's brazen repositioning of the cue ball before every shot gave him an edge, and he eventually beat me. I re-racked my cue and the president waved me into his office, an open space with myriad photos of himself: Saleh on a horse, Saleh with his arms around handsome, white-uniformed young men, single photos of individual young men in uniform (sons? cousins?). A bronze stallion reared on his desk. His bookshelf was all Arabic and no frills.

Ghani wandered off. The president asked me whether I wanted to swim in the pool. I considered objecting on the grounds of not having a suit.

"I don't really like swimming," I said instead. The president offered me a tour of the club. Perhaps it's here that I should have felt a more sinister current come into play, but I was still half in shock, repeating to myself: How did this become my life? The two of us wandered past the pool and turned a corner into the locker rooms, decked out with a sauna, steam room, and a hot tub big enough for Saleh and all of his wives (he has four -- they do not participate in public life). I imagined more than one young journalist walking through these rooms, feeling like they had access to an inner sanctum.

"Enjoy yourself," the president told me. "Do you want to go swimming? Use the sauna? The hot tub?"

The president motioned me to sit down on a small love seat by the hot tub, a nondescript floral piece of furniture that looked like it might have come from Craigslist.

"So," said the president. "Are you married?" Perhaps he didn't open quite so abruptly, but that's what I remember. Are you married? Ghani no longer struck me as an entirely benign figure. Why had he wandered off?

I said I wasn't married, and my heart beat faster.

I can't remember how the conversation turned but, all of a sudden, the president started making fun of my shoes -- the chunky, brown-leather boots I'd had since eighth grade and refused to take off to play pool.

"You're a very tall woman. Why are you wearing tall boots? They're like boots you should wear for…"

The president took the hem of my gray floral skirt and flicked it up toward my knee, pointing toward the boot.

"For what?" I said. "What's that word you just said?"

With a bit of linguistic maneuvering, we worked out that he meant horseback riding. Like boots someone would wear to ride a horse. The president dropped my hem, and I smoothed my skirt back over my lap, saying that equestrian boots were in style. Suddenly the president stood up, brusquely mentioning a book about Yemen written by an American journalist. He moved briskly toward his office and I followed dumbly, shaking, feeling a deep anxiety grow in the pit of the stomach, my body's warning system kicking in. He encouraged me again to use the pool, casually rifling through his desk and bookshelf in search of the book.

Ghani appeared, sweating, fresh off the exercise bike. He had changed into a pink T-shirt and sat down with us.

"We have a saying in Yemen," said the president. "Girls who are very lovely get married. Girls who are not so lovely finish school. Why aren't you married?"

"Maybe I'm not so lovely," I quipped.

"No, no. You're very lovely." I turned down his offer to introduce me to a friend, a wealthy and "open-minded" Yemeni businessman. I said the cultural differences would preclude a happy marriage. The president needled me some more about my boots: "Look at them! Tell her they're something you wear to ride a horse!" Ghani, to his credit, pleasantly mentioned that Colorado, where I was from, had many ranches.

And then it was over. The president and his advisor stood up.

"The president has a meeting now. So you will go."

The president's flunkies signed me out, taking my business card and information. His "protocol officer" drove me back into town, asking friendly, pointedly detailed questions about my life in Yemen. I had him drop me at the supermarket instead of my home and wandered zombie-like through the bright aisles, trying to figure out what had just happened.

So much of Yemen is opaque. Every time I learn something new it's like cresting a false peak; I can see how much farther I have to go. As the world asks what will come next for Yemen, I wonder what will happen now to this coarse but energetic figure as he moves into what might generously be called "retirement." Goodbye, Mr. President. We knew you all too well and understood you not at all.

CHRIS BOURONCLE/AFP/Getty Images