Baghdad: On a recent afternoon, a pistol lay on Munir Haddad's coffee table. A television, sound off, played professional wrestling. As a visitor entered he told an assistant to remove the gun, embarrassed by its presence, but then said he was never without a weapon, even in the bathroom.
He proudly pointed to a picture on the wall of himself standing next to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and singled out other photographs that line the walls of his office. There he is, with emirs, ayatollahs, princes and ambassadors. One stands out more than the others. In it, a smiling Haddad, in a judge's robe, is peering up from a desk at a man whose face is unseen but whose identity is unmistakable: Saddam Hussein.
Haddad refers to himself as "the guy who hung Saddam Hussein," and while it was an ensemble cast that carried out the dictator's execution, he played a leading role. He presided over the trial and, early one morning in 2006, in a drab room in a former military intelligence building, Haddad read Saddam the execution order and accompanied him to the gallows.
Since then, life for Haddad, who as a Shiite and a Kurd was doubly oppressed under a dictatorship that was dominated by a Sunni Arab elite, has taken on an unlikely trajectory. He is in a private law practice, having been pushed out of the judiciary, like so many qualified civil servants, by the Shiite-dominated government and replaced, he says, by political party hacks. He has carved out a late-career niche - and a new measure of fame - defending countless Sunnis jailed on what he and human rights activists say are spurious terrorism charges.
"I used to be a hero for the Kurds and the Shiites," he said, because of his role in Saddam's trial. "Now, I'm a hero for the Sunnis."
He has also gotten rich.
"I have become a millionaire," he said, immodestly, and then ticked off the locales in which he says he owns homes: Beirut, Dubai, Barcelona, Germany.
"Last week I bought a big house in Holland," he said. He said he had plenty of money but kept working because "my wife and daughter want everything."
His family lives in the northern Kurdish region, where life is easier and safer than elsewhere in Iraq and where, he said, his daughter recently called him to ask for a $40,000 Jeep. He said he would buy it in Baghdad and have it sent north.
As he spoke, he remembered that he was due in Beirut in a few days to try to sell a property there because he is worried that the war in Syria will drive down real estate prices. He called in an assistant and pulled from his pocket a roll of $100 bills, peeling off a few and telling the young man to buy a plane ticket to Beirut.
Haddad's story tells two truths of modern Iraq: the exile of educated technocrats from government service in favour of the patronage appointments of party-aligned officials who bend to the will of a powerful prime minister and the vast wealth that is available to the well-connected in a society where the majority of citizens live in abject poverty.
With violence in Iraq increasing, the government has responded with some of its harshest crackdowns yet on Sunni areas, casting a wide net in pursuit of terrorism suspects, arresting the innocent and guilty alike. Which is good news of course for Haddad, whose business is booming. He said his phone was constantly ringing, with calls coming in from Anbar, Mosul and Tikrit, Sunni areas where young men are filling the jails.
Through Haddad's efforts, Abu Hussein, a Sunni police officer in Samarra, was recently released from jail after being held for a year on terrorism charges that he said were false and made by an anonymous informer. That is standard practice here. Many Iraqis, some of whom used to feed tips to the U.S. military in exchange for money, now earn a living informing on their neighbours. The problem, say human rights activists and Iraqi officials, is that the information is often false.
After his arrest, a friend told Abu Hussein about Haddad.
"They said he is the one who defends the innocent people," he recalled. "The Iraqi law is protecting those informers, but never the innocent people."
He continued: "He is a Shiite man, but he defends the Sunnis. He knows what is right and wrong, and sect is not important."
Haddad said he took only cases in which he is convinced the defendant is innocent. As a result, the mere fact that he has chosen to represent a particular client, not to mention his fame and reputation gained from the Saddam trial, is sometimes enough to ensure an exoneration.
Like many educated Shiites and Kurds oppressed under the former regime, Haddad left the country in the 1990s after spending time in jail and seeing two of his brothers killed by the government. He became a lawyer in Oman where, he said, he was, "a big man. I had a driver, a big house."
Like many of those same exiles, he returned in 2003 hoping to play a meaningful role in shaping a new Iraq. Many have since left, disenchanted by persistent violence and corruption, leaving a void where an educated middle class was supposed to be the foundation of a new society.
But Haddad stayed, even after he was pushed from government in 2008 - for refusing to have his judicial work constrained by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and officials in his inner circle whom Haddad called "ignorant."
"I will live and die in Iraq," he said.
Instead, he found a new mission, just as critical, he believes, as his former one as a top member of the country's judiciary.
"We saw and witnessed the injustice against us," he said. "And we will not accept the injustice against others. With this way we will not be able to build a state."
Haddad, some Iraqi officials say, serves as a rare example of professionalism in a justice system rife with corruption and incompetence, and is regarded by some as a hero in the cause of human rights here.
"He is an extremely neutral person," said Mudhir Janabi, a Sunni lawmaker. "He literally deals with the law away from sectarianism and partisanship. His real aim is to apply the law and the constitution, and he always takes in to account human rights, and he looks at the people as Iraqis only."
Two years ago he survived an assassination attempt in central Baghdad that he believes was carried out by gunmen with ties to the government.
"I am a Shia but I defend Sunnis, and it has created many enemies for me," he said. "I am happy for this hatred my enemies have for me, because it means I am successful."
His relish for his work and the wealth it has brought is matched only by the contempt he has for the government he once served.
"Maliki used to be my friend," he said. "Now, I think Maliki is crazy. He is out of control and destroying Iraq. He has divided the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds."
Echoing a common complaint of the authoritarian tendencies of the prime minister voiced by analysts and diplomats, Haddad said: "Maliki interferes in everything. Maliki is the problem of Iraq."
© 2013, The New York Times News Service