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Maliki gathers strength, unsettling some in Iraq

Parker is a Times staff writer.

An increasingly bold Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has sanctioned politically charged arrests of prominent Sunnis, personally supervised military operations and moved to sideline rivals in recent months, actions that have evoked memories of the country’s authoritarian past.

Now the Shiite leader, once considered weak and ineffectual, is on the cusp of greater powers with the likely approval this week of a security agreement with the U.S. that would anoint him as the man who brought an end to the American troop presence in Iraq.

That has left Sunni Arab, Kurdish and even some Shiite parties nervous about their future after the Americans are gone.

Maliki’s defenders say the prime minister, who comes from a fiercely nationalist background, is trying to prevent the breakup of Iraq by establishing a strong central government. Detractors, including several Iraqi politicians and at least one Western official, suspect him of having ambitions to become “a benevolent Shiite Saddam.”

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By increasingly exerting authority, Maliki has broken from the model of a severely constrained central government championed by the Americans since they ousted longtime President Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. Under the U.S.-promoted model, Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds were to share power in Baghdad, and Iraqi regions dominated by each of the groups were to be guaranteed clear protections.

“In some ways, we are seeing a return to traditional Iraqi political culture, where authority is centralized in the person of the leader in Baghdad,” said a U.S. official, who asked not to be identified because of the subject’s sensitivity. “That is the way Iraq has been run for decades prior to the American intervention in 2003.

“It’s too early to say if a democratic state can emerge out of all this. It’s messy and it’s not going to get better any time soon, at least. It may become more violent.”

Although mindful of the fears that a new dictatorship could emerge, Maliki’s supporters don’t necessarily view the term “strongman” as a negative, since the nation could easily fall into terminal ethnic and religious disarray without strong leadership.

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“It is positive for people to refer to the prime minister as strong,” said lawmaker Sami Askari, a key Maliki confidant. “Iraq needs a strong leader.”

In recent months, Maliki’s office has created tribal councils that are seen as a direct challenge to Kurds in the north and Shiite competitors in the south. As well, the Iraqi army has arrested prominent Sunni members of such groups as the Sons of Iraq, an anti-insurgent paramilitary force that had been established and funded by the United States.

Such measures have many Iraqi and Western officials debating Maliki’s true intentions.

They describe a man of contradictions -- incredibly modest, solicitous to friends, but deeply suspicious of the Americans, and given to rants about the Sunni-dominated Baath Party leaders that ruled under Hussein. Maliki, steeped in the ferment of the revolutionary Shiite Islamic groups that shaped him, feels an intense need to defend Iraq’s Shiite majority and preserve its newfound power, they say.

Maliki has firmly rebutted the idea that a strong prime minister equals a return to Hussein’s time.

This month, Maliki defended his government’s assertive role. Otherwise, he said, “things would have slipped away.”

He went on to warn that if too much power was ceded to regional governments, as envisioned by the Kurds and his party’s competitor within the Shiite bloc, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the country could end up “with multiple central governments and dictatorships.”

The prime minister urged instead that the constitution be revised to strengthen the national government.

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In doing so, Maliki has moved audaciously to bolster his authority. In March, he dispatched soldiers to the southern city of Basra, where he directed them into neighborhoods to confront radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia. He has approved controversial arrests of influential Sunni and Shiite figures. Once ignored by government ministers who had no loyalty to him, he now gives direct orders at ministries such as oil and electricity and has dismissed Trade Ministry officials he alleged were corrupt.

He has also fired employees in the Foreign Ministry, controlled by the Kurdish bloc, a move that his opponents have claimed is a power grab. And he has commanded his forces to challenge Kurdish forces in a disputed border area in Diyala province. That confrontation ended in a standoff.

Since Maliki was appointed in 2006, officials in Washington have debated his overall intent. While President Bush has long made clear his unwavering support for him, others in his administration have expressed doubts, seen most notably in a late 2006 memo by national security advisor Stephen Hadley, which questioned whether Maliki shared the same goals as the United States.

“I suspect Maliki’s motivations are complex and contradictory,” said Stephen Biddle, a defense analyst who has served as an advisor to Gen. David H. Petraeus. “The guy is something of an opportunist, trying to figure out what he can get away with, so he thinks it’d be nice to be a dictator for life, but realizes it would be difficult, so he was pleasantly surprised by his hit against [the Mahdi Army] and his probing with the Sons of Iraq.

“If he doesn’t pay a price for going against domestic opponents, he’ll try more of it,” Biddle said. “He is trying to figure out what he can really get.”

Much will depend on whether he can use January’s provincial elections to consolidate power in southern Iraq. If he manages to expand his reach, it will be a major boost for him when the country holds its next national elections, scheduled for December 2009.

Yet even with his ascension, the limits on Maliki’s power are very real: His army remains relatively weak and reliant in the north upon the Kurds. Maliki is also aware of the delicate calculus with the country’s onetime Sunni elite, who could revive Iraq’s insurgency.

Although he has approved operations against leaders of the Sons of Iraq in mixed provinces such as Diyala in the east, he has been far more careful in the Sunni-dominated province of Anbar, the onetime incubator of the insurgency.

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Prominent sheiks involved in the Sons of Iraq there now cultivate him, cognizant of his ability to intercede on their behalf.

A tribal leader, Sheik Ali Hatem Sulaiman, has joined with Maliki in forming a tribal council for Anbar. Other Anbar sheiks describe the prime minister as “the best of the worst” among Shiite leaders, and talk of accepting the new reality in which the country’s Shiite majority reigns.

Pivotal to the prime minister’s power is his role as the country’s military commander. In Baghdad, and several other major provinces, all police and army units formally report first to his office through what are called provincial command centers.

“The prime minister has not hesitated to move around and get involved even in the assignments process in the Iraqi military,” the U.S. official said. “I think he is very involved in security policy, he is very involved in security operations.”

One of the most controversial military operations in recent months was in Diyala, where the prime minister sent troops from Baghdad who arrested hundreds of Sunni Arabs, some of them associated with the Iraqi Islamic Party, the sect’s largest bloc in parliament.

“The arrests were certainly undertaken by the Iraqi security forces, with the knowledge of the central government. In the end, the prime minister knew about them,” the U.S. official said.

The Islamic Party accused Maliki’s office of deliberately detaining prominent party members, including a candidate for governor in the upcoming January elections.

U.S. officials believe there is no grand sectarian scheme for the arrests, seeing instead a series of overreactions by Maliki based on his ingrained suspicions.

“I suspect these are less motivated politically than they are motivated by an almost knee-jerk reaction on security concerns,” the U.S. official said. “The Sunnis are road kill, and probably largely because the prime minister does not trust them.”

Askari portrayed the prime minister’s military campaigns and policy decisions as nothing less than saving the country from disintegration.

“Without a strong Iraqi government,” he warned, “Iraq will be fragmented.”

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ned.parker@latimes.com


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