Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi is one of the central figures in a government that has killed over 300 people in its bloody response to mass protests in the last six weeks.
The soft-spoken French-educated economist, like many in senior positions in Iraq, hails from an exiled generation who once struggled – largely peacefully – against the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein before 2003.
Many in official positions once discussed how to protect human rights and freedoms after the US-led invasion of 2003. Many, especially Shiite politicians, spent years as the target of Saddam’s own violent crackdowns on dissent.
These figures have now undergone a 16-year transformation from voices of opposition to leaders of their own crackdown of protests that one Iraqi cleric described as being reminiscent of the Saddam-era.
Mr Abdul Mahdi’s reason for this, the cleric and an associate who had closely worked with him told The National, is the prime minister’s own political pragmatism. It also, they both said, comes as no surprise.
The 77-year-old adhered to the pre-Saddam strain of Iraqi-Baathism, Trotskyism and Maoism, before pivoting to political religion after he fled the country when Saddam came to power in the late 1960s.
Mr Abdul Mahdi finally realised his ambition to become prime minister last year after post-election backroom negotiations could come up with no other consensus figure acceptable to Iran and the US.
For Shiite politicians like Mr Abdul Mahdi, Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer Al Sadr was a key inspiration. One of Iraq’s most eminent theologians in centuries, Al Sadr was executed by Saddam in 1980 along with his sister, educator Amina Al Sadr – also known as Bint Al Huda.
Al Sadr was an Islamic reformist whose scholarship sought to harmonise Islam with constitutionalism, democracy and the rule of law – the same values Mr Abdul Mahdi and many of the Iraqi elite vowed to uphold after the fall of Saddam.
In December 2003, Mr Abdul Mahdi was among four Iraqi politicians who visited Saddam in his Baghdad prison days after he was captured by US forces.
Mowaffak Al Rubaie, who later became Iraq’s national security adviser, asked Saddam why he executed Al Sadr and Bint Al Huda, a question Saddam reportedly mockingly dismissed.
Then Mr Abdul Mahdi asked the former Iraqi dictator why he had killed Abdul Khaliq Al Samerrayi, an Iraqi Baathist leader who was once the now-prime minister’s mentor until he was executed by Saddam in 1979.
“None of your business,” Saddam replied, according to an account of the meeting by the late Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi and by Mr Al Rubaie.
The question showed how much the extrajudicial execution of Mr Abdul Mahdi’s old comrade had affected him, almost a quarter of a century later.
Inspired by Al Sadr, Mr Abdul Mahdi was part of a group at the vanguard of advocating human rights and the rule of law for the post-Saddam-era, holding a consistent view about the “new Iraq”.
They started off as widely respected and seen in Iraq as providing positive influence as the country sought a new political class after the de-Baathification following 2003.
Just two weeks before US forces invaded Iraq, Mr Abdul Mahdi put his name to an opposition manifesto hammered out in northern Iraq’s Sulaymaniyah.
Saddam’s main opponents – who at the time were poised to take power in a matter of months – pledged to “dismantle all Iraq’s repressive institutions and end those currents of thought in Iraq that gave rise to tyranny”.
The parties sought to build “a democratic Iraq based on the rule of law, characterised by internal peace, is the best guarantee for the spread of peace and stability with other countries”.
The 16 years since 2003 have, however, been anything but peaceful.
Even two years after the invasion, when he was re-running on a sectarian Shiite list for parliament and hoping to become prime minister, Mr Abdul Mahdi still echoed these ideals when he said Iraq needed to “develop the concept of citizenship”.
But once he was in power, Mr Abdul Mahdi ignored very similar acts of violence carried out with impunity that had been widespread under Saddam.
As vice-president in the mid-2000s, he avoided criticising Shiite death squads during the bloody chapters of Iraq’s post-invasion civil conflict.
Most politicians in Iraq were still opposed to a Saddam-style state dominated by intelligence operatives. But soon after the invasion, the split emerged between those who believed a continued US presence could help Iraq’s recovery – as it did for Germany after the Second World War – and those who turned to Iran.
Mr Abdul Mahdi chose a third way – remaining on good terms with both sides. The ticket to Mr Abdul Mahdi’s ascent was ultimately his association with the Al Hakims, a powerful religious-political family that took him under its wing and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq that they helped found in Tehran in the 1980s.
The council’s armed wing, the Badr Corps – later renamed the Badr Organisation – became Iran’s main paramilitary instrument in Iraq.
But Mr Abdul Mahdi was considered more open-minded than some Shiite doctrinaire figures.
Even after he had turned to political Islam, he still translated a book on development from French to Arabic by the late Marxist economist Samir Amin.
Given his history, when the security forces and Iran-backed militias first opened fire on the Iraqi protests in early October, some expected Mr Abdul Mahdi to take a stand.
Instead, he recycled old economic development plans and ordered more troops onto the streets, in line with tough action advocated by Iran.
Indeed, reports indicate Mr Abdul Mahdi’s continued role as prime minister is thanks to the intervention of shadowy Iranian Quds Force head General Qassem Suleimani.
Sheikh Ali Al Uboudi, an independent Shiite cleric who is among the most outspoken religious figures to support the uprising, cautioned demonstrators early on not to expect the prime minister to be any different from other governments.
The cleric told The National that those in power today have no qualms about being as brutal as Saddam, even though they were at the receiving end of his years of repression.
“Abdul Mahdi is weak, and a weak personality can be the most violent,” Mr Al Uboudi said.
Iraqi journalist Ali Nouri said Mr Abdul Mahdi has grown isolated, partially explaining “the degree to which his rhetoric has become so callous, talking about budgets and projects and construction while the youth of Iraq are being annihilated.”
For an old friend of the prime minister, the protesters’ resolve to bring down the entire political class had put Mr Abdel Mahdi on the side of the government’s most brutal elements and in opposition to the streets.
The associate of Mr Abdul Mahdi, who described how they worked together in the late 1990s and early 2000s on legislative and human rights issues in preparation for a post-Saddam era, talked about the shift in the prime minister.
“Adel has behaved first and foremost like a politician,” the friend said, adding that this didn’t absolve him. “Whether he gave orders to shoot the protesters or not, he bears responsibility.”
Despite lofty aims and ideals of enforcing the rule of law, neither Mr Abdul Mahdi nor his other Shiite predecessors appear to have made significant attempts and to build the state laid out in the 2003 manifesto they put their names to.
After 2003, Al Sadr’s unmarked grave was exhumed and his body moved to an imposing new resting place in Wadi Al Salam, the valley of peace in a sprawling cemetery at the Shiite holy city of Najaf.
Since then, Iraqi Shiite leaders have thronged to his gravesite to bolster their own credentials and reputations. While many still talk about the values Al Sadr once espoused, they don’t seem to be translating into the actions of the current administration.