Iraq's first post-Saddam, democratic Constitution, enacted in 2005, left the battle-scarred nation's most intractable issues for parliament to tackle. Newly-elected lawmakers were given six months to amend the Constitution and redraw the division of power and wealth between Iraq’s main factions—the Shia, Kurds and Sunnis.
But that never happened.
Instead each consecutive parliament has proven incapable of acting, stoking resentment among Sunnis marginalized under the government of Nouri al-Maliki. The notoriously rocky relationship between Maliki and parliament hampered numerous pieces of legislation from 2010 to 2014, including passage of a national budget for 2014.
But all that changed in April, when Maliki stalwarts took control of the parliament in a decisive victory.
The following investigation reveals how Maliki’s relatives and loyalists abused the powers of the prime ministry in order to stack parliament in his favor. Maliki relatives and political novices handed out bogus land titles to the poor as a down payment on their votes, promising them that the titles would be registered legally only after their election. Some voters allegedly received tours to visit Iran, others, jobs in the police forces.
The strategy succeeded. So strong was the former prime minister's personal support that when Maliki’s Islamic State of Law Party nominated opposition member Haydar Abadi to replace him as prime minister in August, only 10 senior lawmakers actually supported the nomination. The other 43 stuck by Maliki, who had resisted power-sharing concessions aimed at reconciling Iraq's fractured communities.
Iraqi lawmakers now face an impossible challenge: With militants of the Islamic State raising their black flag over towns and cities outside of Baghdad, parliament must finally act on long-delayed political reforms, taking into account the grievances of Iraq’s sizable Sunni minority.
But will Maliki's legacy of election-related corruption get in the way?
As elections approached this year, Maliki launched a campaign to hand out land deeds in neighborhoods, contravening his own cabinet’s prior prohibition on urban expansion. Either personally or through his relatives, Maliki handed out 40,000 to 50,000 land deeds between September 2013 and the April 2014 elections. Based on documents obtained by this reporter, statements by Maliki and media accounts of campaign rallies and other activities, the total number of illegal residential units – housing built on public land without permits – now amount to an estimated 347,000 units, covering 2.5 million people. The decision to transfer ownership was passed as an executive decree by Maliki, never reaching parliament.
Maliki’s land distribution campaign was opposed by foes and allies alike. One such ally was former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. In a statement published on his website, Jaafari called the votes his National Reform Trend party won “golden votes,” because they did not come as “part of a deal” or as the result of “handing out money, gifts, and appointments.” Jaafari also lambasted the political novices elected on Maliki’s list: “They were not elected based on their popularity, but using the office [of the prime minister] to buy votes.” According to Intissar Allawi, a senior member of the Iraqi National List, Jaafari was alluding to Yasser al-Maliki, Nouri’s son-in-law and head of his security detail, and Hussein al-Maliki, another son-in-law and his personal secretary.
Prior to his marriage to Nouri’s daughter and appointment to a high-level security job, Yasser worked as a police escort, while Hussein was a low-level employee in the De-Baathification Committee, set up after the fall of Saddam to purge regime elements from state institutions. He became the prime minister’s secretary in 2006. Despite their apparent lack of qualifications, Yasser and Hussein joined Maliki’s electoral list as candidates for the Dawa party quota.
Nouri al-Maliki handing out land deeds ahead of the April parliamentary elections.
Documents obtained by this reporter, including photos and land transfer requests signed by Yasser, indicate that Nouri al-Maliki’s son-in-law used land ownership transfers to win votes. Through the prime minister’s office, Yasser was able to obtain approvals for the transfer of ownership for 24 neighborhoods built on agricultural lands.
On 2 March 2014, Prime Minister Maliki approved the transfer of ownership requests presented by Yasser al-Maliki for the al-Qaem neighborhood of Karbala, some 70 miles southwest of Baghdad. The documents did not specify the legal capacity by which Yasser had signed the requests on behalf of the residents of these neighborhoods. As campaign fever peaked in the lead-up to the elections, Yasser requested land transfers in 20 more illegal neighborhoods in Karbala. The request was approved in two phases on March 11.
The election results show that Yasser al-Maliki received the highest number of votes among candidates in Karbala in most of the areas included in the land transfers. For example, Yasser managed to amass 15,430 votes in the al-Hindiyah region, which is where the bulk of the illegal neighborhoods are built. Joining Yasser in handing out land deeds was Hussein al-Maliki. Banners raised in many areas of Karbala praised the latter’s role in land transfers and in turning agricultural land into residential zones.
Abu Sajad al-Karbalai, who worked with Yasser al-Maliki’s campaign, claims that Yasser and Hussein spent huge sums of money to entice voters with public works projects that, while not illegal, suggest a pattern of bribing voters. According to Karbalai, the handouts included tourism and pilgrimage trips to Iran, as well as jobs in different government agencies, including the police and army. Heavy agricultural machines were put at the service of voters, roads were paved, and water purification stations were built. The Malikis also set up sports playing fields in the neighborhoods, and Yasser installed colorful branded bus stops.
As a result, the two Maliki in laws scored 102,000 votes in Karbala, more than the total number of votes accumulated by the nine other winners in that province.
Malikis’ campaign declined to answer specific questions for this article. Only Hussein al-Maliki provided a brief statement to 100Reporters, insisting that the prime minister alone handed out land deeds before the elections and that he accompanied only as his secretary. However, photos uploaded to his Facebook account show Hussein al-Maliki personally handing out land titles, in seeming contradiction of his contention that only the prime minister handed out land deeds.
Hussein al-Maliki handing out land deeds ahead of April's election.
The land titles themselves were irregular, containing only the name of the recipient and province. Nothing on the deed specified the assigned plot of land.
In an interview, Uday Jaafar said that these documents caused confusion at government agencies in Baghdad. Since titles did not specify lots, ownership transfers were impossible. Furthermore, many land lots were under the joint ownership of various ministries. The same confusion occurred in Karbala, according to former lawmaker Ali Kurdi, who said, “[Land owners] checked with the municipality only to find out that there was no land registered in their names, and they were asked to check back at a later time.”
Former head of the Karbala provincial council Mohammad Moussawi concludes: “The land that Maliki handed out does not exist. It is still agricultural and desert land owned by the Ministry of Finance. It was never transferred to the Ministry of Municipalities or re-zoned as residential land.”
Abdul-Latif al-Saadi, an official with the anti-Maliki Citizen Bloc campaign, suspects that Maliki handed out these incomplete land titles on purpose. Saadi argues that this move guaranteed beneficiaries would vote for Maliki out of fear that titles would be revoked if someone else won.
Despite a leaked video recording detailing how Maliki used the illegal neighborhoods issue as part of his campaign strategy, attempts to challenge the votes Maliki and his allies won failed.
In the recording uploaded to Youtube, Judge Mahmoud al-Hassan, a close ally and former MP in Maliki’s coalition, offers to barter land deeds for votes on behalf of the prime minister. After the elections, al-Hassan was fined 50 million Iraqi dinars ($43,000) by the Independent High Electoral Commission for violating the rules for electoral campaigns.
“The Prime Minister’s Nephew” was printed on all the campaign material for the candidacy of Ali Sobhi al-Maliki. Hareth Abbas, who worked as a publicist for the Maliki campaign in Babylon, reports that this was Ali Sobhi’s only trump card. The same goes for Ali Sharif al-Maliki who campaigned as “the Cousin of the Prime Minister.” Ali Sobhi was active in the land transfer scheme, as he stood in for his uncle on many campaign occasions and personally handed out deeds. At a Babylon resort on April 18, Ali Sobhi handed out 800 land titles to the poor of the city, including widows, divorcees, and people with special needs.
A banner at a cement plant in Babylon thanking Nouri al-Maliki and Ali Sobhi for the land deeds.
Following the same process as in Karbala, Ali Sobhi requested the transfer of land ownership on behalf of residents. His uncle, the prime minister, approved the transfer of 1,500 lots to the workers at a cement plant in Abu Khastawi, Babylon.
Salam al-Tamimi, a legal expert and political analyst, argues that transferring the ownership of tens of thousands of units during a campaign is of questionable legality.
Tamimi maintains that Iraq’s new parliament should launch an investigation into the practice, and turn its findings over to the judicial branch. But with parliament stacked with Maliki loyalists, that reckoning appears unlikely to come at the hands of lawmakers.
Rasha Kelani is the pen name of an Iraqi investigative journalist, who works under a pseudonym for reasons of security.