Iraqi court ruling would increase Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's power

Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; 6:55 PM

BAGHDAD - Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's new coalition partners are vowing to fight a controversial ruling by Iraq's highest court that would place key independent institutions effectively under his control, setting the stage for a major showdown between the factions even before his new unity government is fully formed.

According to the ruling by the Federal Supreme Court, all of the independent institutions enshrined in Iraq's constitution would, in the future, come under the direct supervision of the cabinet, headed by Maliki.

Most significantly, the decision would affect the independent election commission, which is credited with steering Iraq through three national democratic elections that, though flawed in many ways, were judged by the United Nations to be free of political interference.

It would also apply to the Central Bank, which controls Iraq's revenue; the Board of Supreme Audit, which audits government finances; the Media and Communications Commission, charged with regulating the press; the Integrity Commission, which investigates corruption; and several other agencies.

The ruling, sought by Maliki in an unpublicized case brought in December and posted without fanfare on the court's Web site late last week, went largely unnoticed for several days because it coincided with a major Shiite holiday. But as the holiday winds down, opposition is building, with critics denouncing the ruling as further evidence that Maliki, a Shiite, is bent on consolidating power at the expense of democratic institutions.

Iraqiya, the main Sunni bloc in parliament, has denounced the ruling as "a coup against democracy"; the Kurds and some Shiite politicians have expressed misgivings; and the agencies affected say they are outraged.

"If this stands, I can't imagine there will be any good election in Iraq in the future," said election commissioner Qassim Aboudi. "The government will interfere in every small detail."

"This is the most dangerous decision we have seen since 2003," said independent political analyst Ibrahim Sumaeidi. "It will be the end of democracy in Iraq."

It will also present the first major test for the new parliament, which many Iraqis hope will offer a more robust check on the government than its weak and ineffectual predecessor.

On Tuesday, the governor of the Central Bank and the head of the election commission met with the parliament speaker, Osama al-Nujaifi of the Iraqiya bloc, to explore ways to challenge the ruling when parliament reconvenes next week.

The uproar threatens to undermine Maliki's incomplete national unity government, formed in December and trumpeted as the first to include all the major factions. Several cabinet positions remain unfilled, including the ministries of Defense and Interior, and there is still no agreement on the creation of a new national strategy council, a key plank of the deal that set the stage for the inclusion of the Iraqiya faction.

"Maliki could be in for some trouble," said Reidar Visser, a Norwegian scholar who is an Iraq expert. "It could be a bridge too far and a bridge too early."

The furor also suggests, however, that Maliki will find it harder to impose his will than he did during his first term, when sectarian war raged, the insurgency was potent, the Shiites were united and the Sunnis were not.

"After 2006 he became a semi-dictator because he had the support of all the Shiite bloc," said Sumaiedi, the analyst. "But now he has rival competition, from the Sunnis and from the Shiites themselves, and no one will allow him to be a dictator."

Special correspondents Aziz Alwan and Ali Qeis contributed to this report.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company