Iraq’s Strongman?

maliki.jpgThe New York Times reports that “up to 35 officials in the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior ranking as high as general have been arrested over the past three days with some of them accused of quietly working to reconstitute Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.”

The arrests, confirmed by officials from the Ministries of the Interior and National Security as well as the prime minister’s office, included four generals. The officials also said that the arrests had come at the hand of an elite counterterrorism force that reports directly to the office of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

Maliki’s creation of military units answerable only to himself and the inner circle of his Da’wa Party has been a growing issue. Musings on Iraq had this overview in October:

Since the security operation in Basra in March 2008 Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been organizing local tribes to back the security forces and his government. So far these Tribal Support Councils have been established in Basra, Maysan, Babil, Wasit, Karbala, Dhi Qar, and Baghdad provinces. They are paid $21,000 by Baghdad when they first form, then receive $10,000 a month afterwards. They answer directly to Maliki’s office.

This has caused increasing tensions with the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) who rules most of the south. The SIIC is afraid that Maliki will use these sheikhs to help his Dawa party gain seats in the upcoming provincial elections. The Prime Minister has publicly declared that the councils are non-partisan in nature, and that he would disband any that are allied with a party, but their political nature is apparent to everyone.

Recently, a tribal leader in southern Iraq publicly said what has been an open secret for months now that the Tribal Support Councils are meant to sway voters to Maliki’s Dawa party. Sheikh Nabil Sagban, the head of the Fatla tribe and a Tribal Support Council in Qadisiyah, said that the provincial elections are causing increasing tensions between Dawa and the SIIC. Each one is looking to gain followers before the balloting in early 2009. The tribes are in the middle as they can influence large numbers of Iraqis, especially in rural areas. The coming of a Support Council to the Fatla area of Qadisiyah seemed to work for Maliki as the sheikh declared he would vote for Dawa, and that he would tell his tribesmen to do the same.

In November, Iraq’s presidential council demanded that Maliki “suspend pro-government tribal councils so their legality could be reviewed.”

“We demand that you intervene to order a halt to the work of these councils until there is agreement about them, in order to provide administrative and legal cover for them,” the council said in a letter posted on its website.

The so-called Support Councils have already drawn fire from Iraq’s two main Kurdish parties, who earlier this month accused Maliki of creating his own militias to consolidate Baghdad’s grip on ethnically mixed regions.

While the Kurds in the north and Maliki’s Shia rivals in the south accuse Maliki of using these militias to strengthen his party’s hold in advance of January elections, Maliki has apparently learned from his Bush administration sponsors in that you can do pretty much anything you want as long as you call it “fighting terrorism.”