Iraq's Maliki Issues Clear Message on January Vote: Cooperate or Risk His Wrath

Jawad al-Husnawi, a leader of the Sadr movement in Karbala, is critical of the Iraqi premier's growing assertiveness ahead of January parliamentary elections.
Jawad al-Husnawi, a leader of the Sadr movement in Karbala, is critical of the Iraqi premier's growing assertiveness ahead of January parliamentary elections. (By Anthony Shadid -- The Washington Post)
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By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 25, 2009

BAQUBAH, Iraq -- At 11 a.m. one day in May, eight Iraqi army Humvees barreled into government headquarters of fractious Diyala province, clouds of dust billowing behind them. They had orders to arrest a council member who belonged to a party that had run afoul of Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's increasingly assertive prime minister.

Shouts rang out as the man's colleagues heckled the captain who served the warrant. The council chairman frantically called lawmakers in Baghdad and pleaded with the provincial security chief to intervene. Desperate, he then ran after the captain as he led the council member, Abdel-Jabbar Ibrahim, to the waiting Humvee.

The captain promised to return Ibrahim in an hour, no more than two. Chosen in the January elections to represent the province, he has remained in custody since May 18.

"This is a message," said Amr al-Taqi, a colleague of Ibrahim's on the council.

Although Iraq's parliamentary elections are not until January, the campaign has begun, and Maliki has shown a determination to fight with a tenacity and ruthlessness borrowed from the handbook of Iraq's last strongman, Saddam Hussein. From Diyala, where men under Maliki's command have arrested and threatened to detain a host of his rivals, to Basra, where security forces have swept up scores of his opponents since January, the message is: cooperate or risk his wrath.

Although Iraq's sectarian war has largely ended, and the Sunnis feel they lost, another struggle for power, perhaps no less perilous, has begun in earnest. Maliki has resorted to a more traditional notion of politics in which violence is simply another form of leverage. His goal is simple -- to ensure he emerges as prime minister again after the vote.

To allies, he is what Iraq needs, a proponent of law in a state still without order.

"Is Maliki a strongman, personally and through the constitution? Or is he a dictator?" asked Sami al-Askari, an aide to the prime minister. The former, he answered. "Maliki has a strong personality. The constitution gives him great powers, but if he was not a strongman, he would not have done what the constitution allows him to do."

Opponents, some of whom decry the arrests as "a systematic campaign," warned that the strife unleashed by the jockeying could soon spiral beyond control.

"These political tensions are undermining the security of the country, and I'm worried about it," said Barham Salih, the deputy prime minister and a Kurdish leader.

The Instruments of Power

Maliki's ascent has become a familiar narrative in Iraq. In 2006, a reputation for weakness helped secure him the post. Opponents deemed him malleable. Since then, buoyed in part by his success in the provincial elections, he has concentrated power in the hands of what critics call "the impenetrable circle" and taken command of military units that delivered him and his Dawa party what they had lacked since 2003: men with guns.

But the narrative still tells only part of the story of how complicated Iraq is these days. Everyone seems to be looking for an angle, in pursuit of the coalition they think can triumph in the January elections. Everyone has a grievance, no less pronounced.

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