Power plays shape Iraqi politics

The Baltimore Sun

With provincial elections scheduled for the end of January, Iraq's political troubles seem closer to Shakespearean drama than to nascent democracy.

There is talk of a coup to oust the prime minister. The speaker of the parliament has abruptly resigned, making angry accusations on his way out the door.

And there have been sweeping arrests of people believed to be conspiring against the government, both in Baghdad and Diyala province.

Beneath the swirl of accusations and rumors is a power play in which different factions within the government - and some outside it - are struggling to gain ground as American influence in the country wanes and elections approach that could begin to reshape the political landscape in Iraq.

The real struggle is for the country's identity: how much the government will be controlled from Baghdad and how much from the provinces; who will hold power and who will have to give it up.

The American mantra has been that Iraq remains "fragile" - to use the words of Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus. On the political front that seems especially true. The one source of political unity recently has been frustration with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has been making arrests and using tribes in the provinces to set up personal power bases. His rivals, conscious of Iraq's long history of dictatorship, are crying foul.

"Maliki is monopolizing all the political, security and economic decisions," said Omar Abdul Sattar, a prominent Sunni member of parliament. He listed political parties that he said were turning against the prime minister, including a powerful Shiite party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which is fighting al-Maliki's drive to centralize power in Baghdad and pushing to give more to the provinces - where the party has power bases, particularly in the south.

"It's simply the story of the transformation from a democratic prime minister into a dictator," Sattar said.

Fresh in people's minds is the recent detention of 24 employees of the Interior Ministry in Baghdad, and possibly more from other ministries, who, according to some reports, were plotting a coup. Al-Maliki's office vehemently denied that that was the reason for the detentions. In any case, the detentions of at least some of the 24 were politically motivated, according to several senior Iraqi government officials.

In Diyala province, about 50 people were detained three weeks ago during a rally protesting the detention of a local Sunni political leader. Ten were members of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a leading Sunni party that Shiite parties in Diyala suspect of having links to Sunni insurgents and would like to hobble.

Equally controversial is al-Maliki's project to form tribal councils that have a direct relationship with his office and are paid from his budget. The groups, called support councils, are being created in predominantly Shiite and predominantly Sunni areas.

Their mandate is vague, but conversations with members suggest they are a way to bring powerful tribes into al-Maliki's political orbit so he has a local power base. Al-Maliki's Dawa Party is not particularly influential in the provinces, unlike the parties of some of his rivals.

Deep resentment at these attempts to bolster his power, and especially his exclusion of all but a small inner circle from decision-making, is prompting serious discussion of forcing al-Maliki out by holding a no-confidence vote in parliament. Such a vote removes the prime minister and requires the appointment of a new one. An effort to depose him in 2007 failed, but this time the talk seems more serious.

About two weeks ago, the leaders of the major political factions in the government met in northern Iraq to discuss al-Maliki and whether they could muster the votes to get rid of him, according to high-ranking Iraqi politicians and Western diplomats.

"We have been counting the votes, and we have enough votes to withdraw confidence and nominate a new prime minister," said a senior member of the United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of Shiite parties and independents that forms the largest bloc in parliament. What they do not have, however, is agreement on who would get the top jobs, which the parties want to nail down before making any moves.

The parties' concerns with al-Maliki vary. The Sunni parties mostly feel distrusted, slighted and left out of decision-making. Many Sunnis remain in detention despite an amnesty law that was supposed to result in the release of thousands from Iraqi jails.

The Kurds are furious that, despite promises from al-Maliki and his government, there has not been a vote on whether disputed areas in the north, including Kirkuk, should be part of the Kurdistan region.

Among his fellow Shiites there is a more complicated dynamic. Some parties, such as the powerful Supreme Council, agree with the Kurds' desire to have strong provincial powers, in part to curtail the power of the central government. Other Shiite groups, like those aligned with the anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, are wary of granting more power to the provinces because they have a vision of a national Iraqi identity bolstered by a strong central government.

The former speaker of parliament, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, who quit this week, said al-Maliki's rivals pushed him out to facilitate a no-confidence vote.

A vote of no confidence would not be a coup; it would be a democratic, orderly way to change the government. But unless there is consensus about a successor, the government could drift as it did after the elections in 2005, when there were several months of discussions about who would become prime minister, and in 2006, when the previous prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, was removed.

And the qualities that lawmakers resent in al-Maliki - strong-arm tactics along with efforts to reach out to select local constituencies - have enhanced his profile on the Iraqi street. The question is, will they do better by sticking with him or forcing him out?

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