Iraq's al-Maliki Faces Challenge Over Power Grab

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Spencer Platt / Getty

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki

The turmoil out of Iraq may no longer be bloody and fatal, but politics can result in casualties too. Indeed, the recent successes of Iraq's Shi'ite Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, may have made him a target for the country's increasingly voluble politicians. In his apparent overwhelming confidence in his power, Maliki has recently picked fights with his Kurdish allies, his Shi'ite opponents and his Sunni partners over a variety of issues. Now Iraq's President, Jalal Talabani, who is a Kurd, wants to haul the Prime Minister into federal court, an unprecedented and blistering public slap. The cause: moves to set up councils of tribesmen loyal to Maliki in majority Shi'ite and Kurdish areas where the Prime Minister does not naturally hold sway. Talabani and the Kurds — with sympathetic sectarian nods from others — want Maliki to keep the hands of the central government off their patrimony.

It's not the first time the President and his Sunni and Shi'ite deputies in the presidential council have publicly chastised Maliki over the tribal gatherings. In late November, they demanded that Maliki suspend the pro-government groups until their legality could be determined. "For us to begin today to form councils paid for by the national budget to assume a role that has no known institutional or legal place, this is a situation that needs a serious pause," the council said in a statement posted on its website. The Prime Minister's critics say the so-called Support Councils are a blatant bid to buy influence at the expense of other parties, including Maliki's coalition allies, ahead of provincial elections slated for Jan. 31. Some go further, saying they are a private militia.

The tit-for-tat political clash is being played out through dueling documents posted on each group's website. It could rip apart the governing coalition, although Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh insists that the dispute "won't reach the breaking point." (See pictures of an Iraq where the loudest noise may now be politics.)

Still, Talabani's move is a brazen attempt to clip Maliki's wings. The Prime Minister "is not budging and remains adamant that creating these councils is legal," Talabani was quoted by the Associated Press as saying in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah on Monday. "We will go to the federal court to see whether this is indeed the case."

Maliki has blithely brushed off the criticism, saying the tribal groups are akin to the Sahwa, or Awakening, movement. That movement (of Sunni tribal sheiks in the once al-Qaeda-infested western province of Anbar) sided with the U.S military and the Baghdad government to drive the insurgents out. And on Wednesday, Maliki delivered his own shot across Talabani's bow, defending the legality of the councils and rejecting claims that they are beholden to him. The councils are in the service of the state and will serve future governments, he said in an open letter to Talabani written on Nov. 27 and posted on the Iraqi Cabinet's website on Wednesday. "Mr. President, we have not distributed any guns or bullets to the councils," he added. "I was surprised that they have been called militias."

The acrimonious exchanges between Maliki and the Kurds are rooted in the economic and territorial ambitions of both parties, and they threaten to widen the broadening Arab-Kurd schism. Maliki's recent call to amend the constitution to beef up the central government's powers at the expense of Iraq's 18 provinces did not spare the semiautonomous three-province Kurdish region in the north. It has not only stoked tensions with the independence-minded Kurds but has also drawn fire from his Shi'ite coalition allies in the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, who want to set up a similar semiautonomous region in the Shi'ite south. On Monday, the Kurdish regional government strongly condemned Maliki's governance, basically equating it to Saddam Hussein's. Maliki wants to "take the people of Iraq back to a period we are desperately trying to get beyond," the statement read. "A period where the excessive concentration, or centralization, of economic and political power condemned all Iraqis to unimaginable suffering."

It may an emotional argument that the Kurds are using, but it's also grounded in regional self-interest — which is the Prime Minister's case against those who oppose him. Maliki has lambasted the Kurdish regional government for unilaterally signing oil deals with international companies and cutting Baghdad out of the loop, as well as opening representative offices overseas. He has also pushed back against the Kurds' attempts to extend their military presence into territory south of their regional border. "The central government thinks the Kurdish regional government behaves like a state, and the Kurds think Maliki wants to flex his muscles and go back to a strong central government with him as the strongman," says Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish parliamentarian.