Correction: An earlier version of this article said that an Iraqi lawmaker, Hanan al-Fatlawi, had accused two top Iraqi election officials of paying bribes in 2008. Fatlawi has since clarified that she misspoke and that the alleged bribes took place in October 2010. The story has been updated.
BAGHDAD — Iraqi leaders from across the political spectrum accused Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Saturday of seeking to undermine the country’s electoral system, following the arrest of the official in charge of administering elections.
Maliki’s partners in a fractious coalition government have increasingly denounced his efforts to take control of the most important state institutions. They complain that he has not implemented a power-sharing agreement that was supposed to distribute authority among political blocs, and some have accused him of leading the country toward authoritarianism.
The arrest of the elections official, Faraj al-Haidari, “is undemocratic and illegal,” said Muaid al-Tayab, a member of parliament and spokesman for the Kurdistan Alliance. “We call it political revenge.”
As the head of the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC), Haidari clashed with Maliki after the contested elections of March 2010, in which the prime minister’s coalition placed a close second to the rival Iraqiya bloc, led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi. In one of the most significant disputes, Haidari rejected Maliki’s petition to throw out thousands of votes for Iraqiya.
Now Haidari and another election commissioner, Kareem al-Tamimi, are jailed inside the Salhayah police station, just outside the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, on charges of corruption.
The arrests have intensified Iraq’s ongoing crisis of governance. In December, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi fled from Baghdad after authorities accused him of running death squads and issued a warrant for his arrest. Several long-standing disputes among the country’s divided factions have since burst into a political wildfire.
Political leaders were supposed to gather April 5 for a national conference designed to begin a reconciliation process, but they could not agree on an agenda and the meeting was indefinitely postponed. Now, after the arrests, each of the major political components — nominally Maliki’s partners in government — are speaking out against him.
“The person who gave the specific order for this arrest, he is brother Nouri al-Maliki,” said a written statement issued by the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. “This arrest should be done under the law, not under dictatorship.”
Khaled al-Alwani, a senior member of parliament in the Iraqiya bloc, accused Maliki and his backers of plotting to install his political allies in positions of power.
“They will push out Haidari by any means necessary,” Alwani said.
According to Ramzi Mardini, an Iraq analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, the arrests are galvanizing Maliki’s opponents because of the commission’s central importance to the democratic process.
“IHEC is one of the referees in an electoral game which largely determines who gets what spoils in Iraq,” Mardini said. “Everyone has a vital interest in making sure the institution is not favoring any rival.”
The case against Haidari and Tamimi began in May, when Hanan al-Fatlawi, a member of parliament in Maliki’s bloc, summoned each of the commission’s nine members for questioning in an oversight hearing. Fatlawi said she uncovered documents that show Haidari and Tamimi authorized half a dozen bribes amounting to several hundred dollars in October 2010.
“If someone steals one dollar or someone steals 1 billion, Iraqi law gives the same punishment,” Fatlawi said. “It’s not about the amount of money, it’s about the principle of it.”
Haidari acknowledged that he authorized the payments, but he said they were legitimate bonuses and not illicit bribes. Two months ago, he said, a court ruled in his favor.
“The judge said these payments were legal, within the authority of IHEC,” Haidari said, speaking by phone from his cell. “He said the case was closed.”
On Thursday afternoon, Judge Wethab Mahmoud summoned Haidari to the Rusafa Appeals Court in Baghdad for what Haidari assumed was final paperwork. Instead, Haidari was thrown in jail.
Fatlawi denied that Thursday’s arrests were politically motivated and said that Iraq’s judicial process was functioning normally. Last year, Fatlawi said, she forwarded her evidence to the government’s Integrity Commission, which referred Haidari and Tamimi’s case to the courts.
“It’s a judicial case, not a political case,” Fatlawi said.
According to a statement issued by Maliki’s office late Saturday, the prime minister defended the independence of the judiciary and said he was “aware of the arrests only after the fact.”