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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Personal ties trumping rule of law in Iraq

By Trudy Rubin

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The Mahdi Army in Iraq, shown here in 2005 before it was driven out of Baghdad, is slowly regaining influence as U.S. troops leave.


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Where is Salam?

My trusted Iraqi driver/fixer/sidekick through seven years of covering Iraq has disappeared into Iraq's murky prison system.

His crime? He helped U.S. soldiers arrest radical Shiite militiamen who were killing his Sunni and Shiite neighbors, as Iraq's civil war raged in 2007. Now that U.S. troops have pulled back from Baghdad, someone is taking revenge on Salam and has pulled strings to put him in prison. So far, I've been unable to help.

Salam's experience offers a preview of what will happen when U.S. troops leave Iraq, whose political system revolves around sect and personal connections. His plight is also a reminder that Iraqis who helped Americans are still endangered, with U.S. officials unable or unwilling to help.

I first met Salam in May 2003, when he drove up to my Baghdad hotel and asked if anyone needed a driver. A secular Shiite, he hated Saddam Hussein, whose secret police had hanged his uncle; he was happy that the Americans had arrived.

But his mood darkened as civil war engulfed the country after a holy Shiite mosque was bombed. In mid-2007, radical Shiite militiamen from the Mahdi Army moved into his mixed Shiite-Sunni neighborhood of Hay Salam; they started murdering Sunnis, along with Shiites who protested. Salam's businessman brother-in-law was killed when he refused to pay protection money to Mahdi Army thugs.

Salam wanted to fight back. His chance came when Gen. David Petraeus established forward operating bases in Baghdad neighborhoods. Salam offered tips to U.S. troops, which helped them bust a family of top Mahdi Army leaders in Hay Salam. In the ensuing months, U.S. and Iraqi troops drove the Mahdi Army out of the neighborhood but Salam started receiving death threats.

I last saw him in December 2008. We drove to Hay Salam, which seemed peaceful. Salam had helped form a neighborhood protection force of Shiites and Sunnis that was working with the Iraqi army.

But he told me a story that worried me deeply. Members of the Mahdi Army family that had been busted were now falsely accusing him of complicity in a murder. They had gotten him arrested, but U.S. soldiers quickly got him released.

I worried about what would happen to Salam when U.S. forces pulled out of Baghdad. Over the next several months, I tried to call his phones, but got no answer. Finally, in December, I reached his elder son who told me a wretched story: The Mahdi Army family that had it in for his father had finally exacted its revenge.

After U.S. troops left the neighborhood base, Salam was arrested again on the false murder charges. He had been in jail for a year. The family who sought revenge had close personal connections inside the Ministry of State Security, and had used those connections to get not only Salam jailed, but also his two sons and several neighbors who had criticized the Mahdi Army. In today's Iraq, personal ties trump any pale pretense at rule of law.

What haunts me most is a message from Salam on my answering machine that I have been unable to erase. He left it in December, when he managed to get access to a prison phone; sadly, he called my home when I was at my office. "Please call back, I need your help," he begged. I've been calling the prison ever since, but no one picks up.

So here we have the story of today's Baghdad. Iraq is holding elections in March that will test whether it has moved beyond the vicious sectarian divisions of the past. Prime Minister Maliki claims that is what he wants. U.S. officials are holding their breath.

Yet Salam's story puts a lie to these hopes. A man who helped his own military and ours to fight sectarian thugs still rots in jail as far as I know. A Mahdi Army family that pursued sectarian war can keep him there.

I want someone to tell me: Where is Salam? I'm still hoping he will be saved and justice done. Until then, I won't have a very hopeful feeling about the future of Iraq.