BAGHDAD — Although U.S. troops left Iraq two weeks ago, Saturday marked the official end of the security agreement between the two countries, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was quick to take political advantage of the occasion via the podium and a text message to citizens.
“All of us are for Iraq glory and pride in the nation,” the message read. “I congratulate you and our Iraqi people on this historic day. With love, and with my respect to you and your honorable family, your brother, Nouri al-Maliki.”Recipients reported getting their texts over a period of at least 75 minutes.
Hours later, inside a packed basketball arena, the prime minister delivered an upbeat 25-minute speech, praising many aspects of his troubled country. He also spoke of harmony, even as his critics continued to accuse him of moving toward a dictatorship in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal.
“I’m telling you, Iraq is for all those who believe in the democracy,” he told the crowd.
Meanwhile, in a move that appeared to strengthen Maliki’s position, two political leaders in provinces south of Baghdad announced that they were withdrawing their support from the parliamentary bloc al-Iraqiya, a group that is supported by many Sunnis and has been a leading voice in criticism of Maliki, a Shiite.
In Najaf, Muhammad al-Mussawi, chairman of that province’s Iraqi National Accord group, a key element of al-Iraqiya, said at a news conference that he and others in Najaf are pulling away from the bloc because of the “sectarian positions” it has taken.
At the same news conference, Kamil al-Safi, chairman of al-Iraqiya in Dhi Qar province, said that he and his group were withdrawing from the bloc for the same reason and might switch their allegiance to Maliki’s State of Law bloc.
“At this stage, we will be independent, and there is a lot of dialogue among the political blocs, especially the State of Law,” Safi said.
Mussawi and Safi are Shiites.
A close adviser to al-Iraqiya, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity surrounding thepolitical situation in Iraq, said announcements like the ones out of Najaf are to be expected because Maliki is moving to consolidate power and form a Shiite-dominated government.
He said Maliki is trying to break apart the bloc, which has Sunni and Shiite members and a stated goal of non-sectarian leadership.
“At the end of the day, he doesn’t want to be stuck with us,” he said.
Special correspondents Aziz Alwan and Asaad Majeed contributed to this report.