BAGHDAD — Keeping a watchful eye on the powers that be in the new Iraq is dangerous work. So the young Iraqi judge knew his days as chief investigator for Iraq's Central Criminal Court were probably numbered.
But when the dismissal phone call came to Judge Zuhair al-Maliky two weeks ago - as he sat in his office in fortified chambers under the Baghdad clock tower that once housed a vast museum devoted to the life of Saddam Hussein - he was nonetheless surprised.
Since the end of the Hussein government and his appointment to the position of chief investigator, Judge Maliky has pursued top politicians and security ministries for everything from fraud to illegal detentions.
"The reason they gave for removing me was that the Ministry of Interior is not pleased with my work," says Maliky, who has been demoted to prosecutor in a local court. "But there is something funny: I will keep my salary, and keep the car they gave me, as if the only purpose is to keep me from that position."
That conclusion may persuade Maliky to leave Iraq's newly minted judiciary altogether, a defeat for a man who says that only transparent justice can help Iraq's future.
"At least my conscience would be clear," says Maliky, a former legal adviser to the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, and from 1998, legal adviser to the Arab League. Maliky has spent his life in Iraq and was educated as a lawyer here.
Restoring the rule of law after a generation in which the "law" was the personal tool of a dictator has been a tough fight in post-Hussein Iraq, he says.
"When the Americans came to Baghdad, they brought a very important principle: freedom," Maliky said two weeks before his demotion. "Obeying the law is the duty and right of every citizen. There are not [separate] 'super-Iraqis' and ordinary Iraqis. This is my understanding of freedom."
However, Maliky says, "This is not accepted easily by [new] officials who thought they would inherit Saddam Hussein's system." Besides going after corruption, Iraq's judges also face the difficulties known to judges everywhere - but compounded by Iraq's environment of chronic insecurity.
"We have a proverb: 'If a judge is just, he will be an enemy of half of society,' because we always have a loser [in a court case]," says Judge Salem al-Mussawi, another investigator on Maliky's four-man team, who has since been transferred to a trial court. "These days, any Iraqi can be in danger, from anyone. Even if you are in your house, you can get a missile. On the street there are car bombs."
Tricky, politically charged cases have been making their way onto the docket since Iraq officially gained sovereignty on June 28. Maliky hears unofficially that the cases he brought will be closed.
"It's not just my job to arrest local thieves - that's for the police - but to give the message to Iraqis: 'Nobody is above the law. Nobody is immune anymore,' " Maliky said before his dismissal.
Most Iraqis are "very happy about this" and had been coming more frequently to the court with cases and complaints. Maliky had seven investigators, and was among four investigating judges who he says have been "very active."
But there was pressure from interim officials, and even influential Americans, to ease up on top political figures.
Maliky's target list included Iraq's chief of intelligence, minister of interior, the deputy mayor of Baghdad, and staff of the prime minister's office, who have all received summonses to appear in court, to explain issues that range from holding detainees without arrest warrants to failure to follow legal procedure when evicting squatters from government property.
Maliky estimates that more than half of those cases targeted officials' political opponents, without evidence - a practice he had vowed to stop.
The highest profile case, by far, was the arrest warrant Maliky issued in August for Ahmad Chalabi, the prominent exile and former Pentagon favorite to lead post-war Iraq, who has seen his political star fall - and now faces charges in Iraq on counterfeiting and financial irregularities.
American officials questioned the arrest. Maliky told them he had evidence and would be "responsible" for the results.
Not all are convinced. Richard Perle, the former chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Advisory Board who is close to Mr. Chalabi, has branded Maliky a "rogue, out-of-control judge" pursuing "Saddam Hussein's style of justice."
Maliky acknowledges that imposing law and order has been an uphill battle, after decades of corrupt rule and a deep-seated culture of giving gifts for favors.
But as he sees it, history may be at stake. "Freedom under Saddam was just a word," says Maliky, ticking off past Iraqi constitutions, from 1925 and 1958, through the 1960s to 1970, that codified - on paper only - respect for human rights and judicial independence.
"If we add one more to this list, future generations will curse us. But as things go now, we are losing it. "