Iraq’s Elected Criminals

Some of the very people involved in kidnapping my father from his home three years ago might be elected to office on Sunday. Iraq can do better.


Three years ago, after a day of work at the Ministry of Health, my father, Ammar al-Saffar, was kidnapped from his childhood home in Iraq. Armed militiamen took him in front of my 89-year-old grandmother — who, to this day, lives in hope of his return.

At the time of his kidnapping, my father was the deputy minister of health and a highly regarded advisor to members of the political elite, including current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. But unlike many of Baghdad’s political class, he refused to hole up in the Green Zone, arguing that doing so would disconnect him from the plight of ordinary Iraqis. Instead, he chose to live in his mother’s house in Adhamiya, one of the most hostile districts of Baghdad — without a security detail, blast barriers, or any of the other protections favored by Iraqi politicians. He lived that way until the day he was kidnapped.

My father was targeted during an investigation he was conducting into corruption in the Ministry of Health, which had become a fiefdom for the followers of Moqtada al-Sadr. He was on the verge of exposing explosive evidence that funds earmarked to improve Iraq’s health sector were being diverted to sectarian militias, helping them carry on the fight against their opponents. Those directly implicated include his fellow deputy minister, Hakim al-Zamili, who took such exception to the threatened public disclosure of his association with violent militias that, I believe, he responded by having my father kidnapped.

Zamili was arrested in 2007, and an Iraqi court leveled the same charges against him that my father had made: that he had been responsible for the murder of hundreds of Sunnis who had arrived at the hospitals run by the Ministry of Health. After a two-day trial that featured widespread accusations of witness intimidation and many irregularities, Zamili was freed. In a morbid reversal of justice, Zamili has quoted Gandhi in describing his arrest and claims that it was actually a boon for his political career. He is now a leading candidate for parliament in Iraq’s March 7 election, and his candidacy has been spotlighted on the front page of the New York Times.

Although I always believed Zamili was involved in the killing of my father, it was confirmed for me on March 12, 2007, in a conversation with one of my father’s oldest and dearest friends, former prime minister Jaafari. At his home in London, Jaafari told me, in unambiguous terms, that he had evidence of Zamili’s involvement in my father’s kidnapping, saying that he had received phone calls from prominent Sadrists confirming that Zamili was in fact behind the kidnapping.

It therefore came as quite a shock to learn that Jaafari has recently mended fences with Zamili, in an apparent effort to resurrect his political career. Jaafari’s Islaah Party will run in Iraq’s parliamentary election on Sunday as part of the Iraqi National Alliance (INA) — a coalition which also includes the Sadrists among its members. Zamili is 15th on the INA’s Baghdad electoral list, just a few names below that of his former accuser, Jaafari.

When I attempted to get in touch with Islaah Party representatives in London four months ago to hear an explanation for this shift, I received no answer and was stonewalled by members of his office. Today, the official line coming from Jaafari’s office is that because the court has cleared Zamili, he considers the matter of his alleged involvement in my father’s kidnapping closed.

This abrupt and nauseating about-face is not just distressing for my family, but also holds an important lesson about the sad reality of Iraqi politics today. The 2009 provincial elections showed tangible and encouraging signs of a shift in the Iraqi political dynamic. Cross-confessional national alliances trounced the ethnosectarian parties that had been so popular in 2004 and 2005. Unfortunately, it seems that nonsectarian Iraqi politicians have had difficulty capitalizing on the gains made early last year. In the run-up to the coming election, many Iraqi leaders are cynically cultivating these old fissures in an effort to win votes.

The INA, in particular, has based much of its attraction on precisely this kind of reversion to sectarianism. It is composed of a number of political parties with no common political ideology, vision, or beliefs, held together only by a noxious mix of sectarianism and an unquenchable thirst for power.

Appreciating that there is little appetite for a return to the bloodshed that overwhelmed the country from 2005 to 2007, the INA has instead raised the issue of de-Baathification as a means to marginalize its Sunni opponents. INA leaders believe, rightly, that this issue still resonates deeply with a large segment of Iraqi society traumatized by the rule of Saddam Hussein. By employing slogans such as "Withholding your vote will lead to a Baathist comeback," they have generated a climate of fear that has stirred up animosity toward Iraq’s mainstream Sunni leadership. By actively seeking to heighten sectarian tensions in the hopes of profiting from the fallout, the INA’s Machiavellian maneuver threatens to tear apart Iraq’s fragile social fabric.

Some of the key figures within Iraq’s current Shiite political leadership, who grew close during their years of exile from Saddam’s regime, have been lifelong family friends. Yet many of them — not just Jaafari — have joined ranks with the man who tore my family apart. I find it hard to believe that these people will exhibit better principles if entrusted with the leadership of Iraq: If they are willing to betray my father, their friend and colleague, what chance do the normal, patronless Iraqis have of seeing their rights defended and their concerns addressed?

Iraq’s political elites have become accustomed to lecturing Iraqis on proper ethical behavior, such as what one can eat, drink, and wear — while at the same time perpetrating outrages against basic concepts of justice by sponsoring sectarian murders, corruption, and kidnapping. Sunday’s election is a chance to break this cycle of hypocrisy; the myriad independent, principled candidates and slates will hopefully gain ground on the established parties that have been so disappointing.

Iraq is a country that is endowed with tremendous human resources. There is an abundance of bright minds and competent technocrats. Electing criminals to the Council of Representatives does not do the country justice. It is a travesty of the highest order that the future of Iraq could be entrusted to Hakim al-Zamili and his ilk.

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