The road from central Karbala to the Tuwairij area, where current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was born, is an easy one. There is always a queue of vehicles at the only checkpoint at Ibrahimiya - but once past that, the rest of the journey is almost empty of both cars and checkpoints.
Palm groves and citrus and fruit orchards line the road heading towards this small district, around 25 kilometres away from Karbala’s city centre. Tuwairij is divided by the Hindiya, a branch of the Euphrates river; on one side, you find a number of government buildings and on the other is the neighbourhood’s main square, a transportation hub where locals gather before heading to other parts of Iraq.
Prime Minister al-Maliki spent his childhood and most of his youth in this area, with a population or around 200,000, and he has employed many of his fellow tribe members as security staff and as bodyguards.
Up until relatively recently, it would be fair to say that the patriarchal family unit has underpinned dynastic political systems in many parts of the Middle East – usually because they were either repressive, divisive dictatorships or because they were centuries-old monarchies, and power was simply handed down from father to son.
This culture of leadership has also seen the use of extended family ties – in less flattering terms, nepotism, tribalism and corruption – become more common. Employing family or clan members as security, or in high places, made leaders with good reason to fear their other subjects, feel safer.
The loyalty of employees like this could not be doubted because their self interest was closely tied to the interests of the dictatorial leader.
And this has – in the countries where this kind of leadership exists, or existed – made the leader’s home town a particularly important place.
For example, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi invested heavily in his hometown of Sirte – he apparently imagined Sirte as the centre of a “united states of Africa” – and a lot of his most loyal staff came from there. Under attack, Gaddafi fled there for safety and eventually died nearby.
In Tunisia, many members of that country’s ruling elite came from the small, prosperous coastal town of Hammam Sousse, where the former Tunisian leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled for 23 years, came from.
And in Syria, Hafez al-Assad, father of current leader, Bashar al-Assad, invested heavily in Qardaha, that family’s hometown, during the 30 years he was in power. The wealthy town and surrounding area is well known as the al-Assad’s ancestral home and as the source of many of that country’s ruling and military elite.
In Iraq, a similar situation existed around Tikrit, near former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s hometown – he was born only a few miles away in the village of Awja. Hussein invested heavily in Tikrit and a lot of elite security troops and bodyguards, as well as political leaders, were drawn from the area; locals in Tikrit were apparently intensely loyal to Hussein. When US troops arrested Hussein, who had fled from Baghdad, in 2003, he was hiding near Awja.
So now it is possible to compare the “old Awja” with the “new Awja”, al-Maliki’s hometown of Tuwairij. And if one does this, a considerable feeling of irony may result. Tell the locals in Tuwairij how lucky they are to be living in the “new Awja” and they may start joking with you.
They don’t feel their town can be compared to Hussein’s Awja. “Being well known for wealth and luxury is surely better than being known for poverty and need,” they say to visitors.
Tikrit and its surrounds are wealthy places, full of luxurious houses with coloured domes, as if the city was dedicated to building mosques. Whereas the houses in Tuwairij are very modest, some old and damaged, the results of moisture and termites.
In many ways, the Prime Minister’s hometown suffers from the same problems that many Iraqi towns and cities have. The houses in the Dour Hajar and Muthana neighbourhoods are old and some in danger of collapsing; health services and state services are of low quality, or non-existent, here. Only in the Abu Jouaneh neighbourhood, are there smarter houses and better services.
People who don’t know the place think it must be a privileged place, the locals say - but they haven’t been here.
“Other people in Iraq envy us because one of our citizens holds a very high ranking position,” one of Tuwairij’s residents, Zaydoun al-Rifai, says. “But up until now we haven’t seen any real differences. People think the city should have changed because the Prime Minister was born here. But they’re wrong. Nothing has really changed. You can’t really compare us with Awja,” al-Rifai notes.
“Most of the people here live in areas where there are no paved roads and no health services. There are also electricity shortages,” says Adel al-Sarkal, a Tuwairij civil servant. “Even the street next to al-Maliki’s house is still full of holes and bumps.”
“The poor are still poor and the rich are getting richer,” Ali Muslim, one of the residents in the government neighbourhood, says. “The only positive change is that locals’ children now have more access to employment in the police and military.”
“Al-Maliki would need to stay in power for thirty years to solve the problems here,” he concludes.
Asking around, many in Tuwairij feel the same way – and they have given up on the idea of al-Maliki instigating vast improvements here.
“Al-Maliki often comes here to attend meetings and he’s held many press conferences here, especially to make sensitive announcements before elections,” says another local Zahra Mohammed, who believes the Iraqi leader owes the town more loyalty because of this. “He also employed thousands of the city’s people in the military and police to fight terrorism. Many people from this city were part of al-Maliki’s security plan during the Arab Summit in Baghdad, in March.”
Still, there are some locals who praise what the Prime Minister has managed to do here. During a visit to his hometown, al-Maliki saw the people of a village called Tanouba, crossing a river on bridges they had built themselves from mud. So he organised to have a bridge built for the village.