Developing autocracy in Iraq
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki is doing all he can to cow anyone defying his increasingly autocratic rule, writes Salah Nasrawi
The detention of the Kurdish head of Iraq's electoral commission on charges of alleged graft has seen renewed accusations that Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki is increasing his dictatorial hold over Iraq, with even one of Al-Maliki's closest allies comparing him with former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
The arrest of Faraj Al-Haidari, head of the independent electoral commission on Thursday amid wrangling in the country's parliament over the selection of a new body, raised fears that Al-Maliki might be planning to shelve next year's provincial elections and national elections due to be held in 2014.
The country is already gripped in its worst political crisis since the US-led invasion of 2003, and this new development may further escalate the crisis. Sectarian killings have also increased, with Sunni insurgents in Iraqi mounting a series of attacks against Shias.
Al-Haidari was detained for two days along with another member of the commission on charges that he had used the commission's budget to pay kickbacks to bureaucrats at the capital's real estate records office to officially register land that commission officials had received from the government.
Al-Haidari is a senior member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party led by the president of the Kurdish regional government, Masoud Barzani, and his arrest has inflamed the political bickering and triggered charges that al-Maliki is intent on destroying the electoral process in Iraq.
Al-Haidari was released on bail, meaning that he cannot exercise his official functions until he has cleared his name. The move came as tensions between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government over oil resources and power-sharing rose.
It also came against the background of a dispute between al-Maliki and the leaders of the Iraqiya bloc, an alliance of Sunni parties, who accuse Al-Maliki of trying to marginalise the country's Sunnis.
A Kurdish spokesman blasted the detention of the two senior commission officials, saying it was a "clear violation and serious danger to the political process". The arrests "represent a coup against efforts to rebuild the country," he said, warning that they could harm the future elections.
Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, whose Al-Sadr Movement holds 40 seats in the country's parliament as well as key posts in Al-Maliki's cabinet, accused the prime minister of being behind the arrests in an attempt to postpone the elections.
Al-Sadr warned that by failing to stand up to al-Maliki's ambitions, Iraq was heading back to the "rule of one party and one leader," a reference to Saddam Hussein and the former ruling Iraqi Baath Party.
Haidar Al-Mullah, a leading MP belonging to the Iraqiya bloc, also strongly condemned the arrests, accusing Al-Maliki of "dictatorship" and warning that he was targeting the upcoming elections.
The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, whose mandate is to work closely with the country's electoral commission, said that it was monitoring the situation and that "due process must apply in accordance with the principles enshrined in the Iraqi constitution."
The criticism further ratcheted up the political tension, with Barzani and top Iraqiya leaders warning of the possible break-up of the ruling coalition and indicating that they would seek a no confidence vote in al-Maliki in the country's parliament.
Sunni insurgents have stepped up their attacks on Shia civilians over recent days, apparently in an attempt to undermine government authority.
On Monday, gunmen shot dead four Shia farmers just north of Baghdad. Police officials said that two carloads of attackers had opened fire indiscriminately in the predominantly Sunni village of Al-Rashidiyah.
The assault followed a series of attacks on Shias this month, including the bombing of houses and slaughter of Shia pilgrims. In some areas north of Baghdad leaflets were distributed telling Shias to leave their neighbourhoods or be killed.
The present crisis is the result of the failure of Iraq's sectarian blocs to make progress in convening a national conference aiming to tackle differences over oil revenues and power-sharing, among other issues.
The arrests have built on already- existing tensions from other political disputes, and tensions have been running high since December, when Al-Maliki moved against two senior Sunni politicians following the withdrawal of the last US troops from the country, nine years after the invasion that toppled Saddam.
Baghdad has also accused the Kurdish regional government of smuggling oil produced in the region across the border, instead of fulfilling export obligations. The Baghdad government claimed that its losses from smuggling had exceeded $5 billion over the past two years.
Meanwhile, Kurdistan has stopped oil exports, saying that Baghdad has withheld $1.5 billion owed to foreign companies working in the region. The two sides are also at odds over disputed territory in northern Iraq and dozens of energy contracts awarded by Kurdistan.
Earlier, the Kurdish region gave refuge to Iraqi vice-president Tariq Al-Hashemi, a Sunni politician from the Iraqiya bloc, who was wanted on charges of allegedly running a death squad. The Kurdish authorities then allowed Al-Hashemi to leave Iraq.
The Sunni Iraqiya bloc has been at loggerheads with al-Maliki for some time, accusing him of trying to consolidate his power at its expense. Iraqiya boycotted the parliament and cabinet briefly in December, but bloc members later returned to their jobs on the understanding that outstanding problems would be solved at the projected national conference.
Over recent months, key Kurdish, Shia and Sunni leaders have expressed their distrust of Al-Maliki, and the political chaos in the country has strengthened beliefs that he is trying to create a one- man system of rule in Baghdad and become an authoritarian ruler.
The arrest of Al-Haidari has been seen as an attempt to gain control of the electoral commission after Al-Maliki's own State of Law bloc failed to pass a no confidence vote in Al-Haidari in July 2011. The bloc has also refused to extend by two to three months the terms of current electoral commission members, these due to expire on 28 April.
Critics fear that Al-Maliki, who controls the army, security forces and intelligence services, might be trying to subdue all others to his autocratic tendencies.
They accuse him of relying on the country's compromised judiciary as a weapon against his political opponents, while concealing crimes carried out by his cronies, and they criticise him for using Iraq's corrupt bureaucracy and brutal police against his enemies.
Last week, members of the parliament's budget and finance committee sent Al-Maliki a letter warning him not to interfere in central bank policy after he had reportedly said that he wanted to bring the bank under his authority.
The move came amid a sharp decline in the value of the Iraqi dinar, suffocating businesses which rely on it to buy US dollars to purchase foreign imports.
Maysoun Al-Damalouji, a spokesperson for Iraqiya, accused Al-Maliki of trying to control the bank in order to facilitate the transfer of US dollars to Iran and Syria, both of which are under international sanctions.
While developments over the past four months may have shown that Al-Maliki is indeed trying to consolidate his power and debar his opponents from ruling the country, it is unlikely that he can succeed in post-Saddam Iraq.
Dissatisfaction with Al-Maliki's government is evident even among Shias who have been peeling away from supporting it, fed up with the government's corruption and disillusioned by its failure to carry through promised reforms.
What happens next is largely Al-Maliki's choice. He could respond to the pressure for change by sharing power with others, or he could go his own way. His record in government and rhetoric suggest that he will lean towards the second course.