STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene. Tomorrow, Iraq will hold its first national election since U.S. troops withdrew in 2011. The party of the current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, appears in the lead. Rights groups say his security forces are abusive - especially toward Sunni Muslims. Maliki is a Shiite and some call him a budding dictator. Others, though, see him as a hero who fought against Saddam Hussein. That's generally the view in Maliki's home town. NPR's Alice Fordham went there.
ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: In a low farmhouse here by the lush green banks of the river and next to a forest of the family's date palms is where Nouri al Maliki grew up. This is his house, Maliki's house. His nephew, Majid al Maliki, looks just like his uncle, even wearing a suit as he picks his way along the unpaved road.
This is Junaja, a tiny village in Iraq's Shiite Muslim heartland. The pale dust here creeps up women's long black robes as they walk. Battered buses overtake donkey carts. The only new thing in town is the mosque.
MAJID AL MALIKI: (through translator) The house is open, we can go inside.
FORDHAM: OK, great. Majid shows me round his uncle's childhood bedroom - an iron bed, a bookshelf of planks - and gives me a tip. To understand Maliki, look to the faded pictures of his grandfather. He was a leading opponent of British colonial rule.
MALIKI: (through translator) He had all those poetry collections. His writings were about the love one feels for the homeland, about nationalism and his desire to reject the occupation and the refusal to succumb to the occupiers. So he was always rebelling for his people and for his homeland.
FORDHAM: Relatives were politically-minded Shiite Muslims, living under the oppressive and mostly Sunni Baath Party. Growing up, Maliki read his grandfather's poems, saying the oppressed must leap like lions and work hard for the sake of Islam.
(SOUNDBITE OF SCHOOL CHILDREN)
FORDHAM: We're invited to see where Nouri al Maliki studied as a little boy. Around the bleached courtyard of the school are the classrooms he used to work in.
DHAMER AL KHALJOUDEH: (through translator) Yes, he was serious and virtuous. He had high morals. He used to teach at the village mosque.
FORDHAM: That's Dhamer Al Khaljoudeh, the school principal who grew up with Maliki. Maliki got a job as an accountant but he was focused on his work in the outlawed Islamist political movement called the Dawa Party. One day a Baathist policeman came looking for him.
KHALJOUDEH: (through translator) He met with some people who told him Maliki isn't there, that he's elsewhere. They told Maliki the security chief was coming for him, and so when he found out they were coming to take him, he fled.
FORDHAM: That was 1979, early in the brutal rule of Saddam Hussein. Sixty-seven members of Maliki's family were among the thousands of Shiites eventually killed. He went into exile in Iran and later Syria, sometimes sneaking back to organize resistance fighters. But he couldn't safely return to Iraq until the U.S.-led invasion. Then he put a Dawa office in an old Baath Party building. It was the beginning of the Shiite rise to dominance.
ABBAS FADHIL HADI: (through translator) Well, when Mr. Maliki first returned to the area, it's as if he had returned tranquility to our hearts. He did not just avenge my father. He avenged all martyrs.
FORDHAM: That's Maliki's young cousin, Abbas Fadhil Hadi. He remembers Maliki led a symbolic funeral for those killed under Saddam, starting in the village and ending in the new Dawa office in nearby Hindiya. I head there to see it. We're welcomed into the headquarters of the Dawa Party. It's a big white dusty hall with pink flowers on the walls.
Alaa al Maliki, a cousin of the prime minister, works at the Dawa Party headquarters, and he was here on that day.
ALAA AL MILIKI: (through translator) He raised awareness about Saddam's regime and how it harmed people. And he also talked about all the abuses of the former government.
FORDHAM: Maliki became Dawa leader, then prime minister. In other parts of Iraq he's now seen as grudgeful, even a dictator, but in his home town Maliki is an avenger, a symbol of how Iraq's powerless became mighty. Alice Fordham, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.