BAGHDAD — Faster than anyone expected, barely a month after the last U.S. troops left, Iraq's government appears to be coming apart, prompting fears that the country is headed for another round of sectarian strife.
Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, is driving to consolidate control and sideline more secular politicians in a battle that increasingly appears to be a fight to the finish in which there can be no compromise.
Barham Salih, the widely admired prime minister of the autonomous Kurdish region in the north, said the infighting is "tearing the country apart." Preemption is the name of the game.
"The motto is: 'I'll have him for lunch before they have me for dinner'," he said during an interview in his office in Irbil.
The downhill spiral takes a new turn every week, sometimes daily. Responding to a boycott by his Sunni partners in the power-sharing government, Maliki last week locked them out of their jobs, ordering ministries to bar their doors to cabinet officers, even though they still have a mandate from the Iraqi parliament.
A day later, the Iraqiya bloc headed by secular Shiite Ayad Allawi, which has 94 seats in the 325-seat parliament, said that if Maliki did not agree to curbs on his power, he should be replaced, either in new elections or by a vote of Maliki's Shiite backers in parliament.
Iraqi politics today is a constellation of clashes, many in plain view, but others below the surface. "It's just one-fifth of the iceberg that we are seeing," said Tahseen Shekhli, an adviser to the prime minister. "The more dangerous disputes are still hidden."
What's visible is disturbing enough.
The country's vice-president, a Sunni, fled last month to Kurdistan, where he's safe from Iraqi justice authorities seeking his arrest on allegations that he directed hit squads against prominent Shiites. Maliki has attempted to oust the deputy prime minister, also a Sunni, but Sunni and Kurdish legislators refuse to hold a vote, paralyzing the parliament.
Maliki has sent troops and tanks into the streets of the Green Zone, where most prominent politicians live, and warned top leaders that he is keeping "files" on them.
Allawi, who's been a no-show at parliament and seems to be abroad more often than in Iraq, says that Maliki has arrested more than 1,000 political opponents on the pretext of preventing a coup by members and supporters of the Baath party of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
All is not well within Maliki's bloc, either, which is able to control the parliament with 159 votes.
Supporters of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, who hold 40 of those seats, abstained in protest when they were asked to remove Sunni ministers from their jobs, and they're outraged by Maliki's courting of Shiite extremists who are rivals to the Sadrists.
In the midst of the political squabbling, insurgents, very possibly Al Qaida, have carried out terror assaults, killing at least 250 civilians in Baghdad and other cities in the time since U.S. forces left, giving the country a security scare.
The Obama administration, which trumpeted the U.S. troop withdrawal as the fulfillment of a campaign promise, views the internal conflict as a real crisis and a big problem for future relations.
The United States has "repeatedly" told Maliki and other political leaders that "our relationship, all the things we want to do" depend on "a resolution through constitutional means," a State Department official said. The official asked not to be further identified because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Less clear is whether the U.S. can help restore stability. With no military forces on the ground, Washington's leverage is meager.
President Barack Obama may even have made things worse last month when he hosted Maliki in Washington and hailed him as the leader of "Iraq's most inclusive government yet."
"Iraqis are working to build institutions that are efficient and independent and transparent," Obama said.
The speech enraged Saleh Mutlak, a Sunni who is a deputy prime minister.
"What I heard from Obama was deceiving both for Americans and Iraqis," Mutlak told McClatchy. "Obama is telling Americans that they were victorious in Iraq, they liberated the country and Iraqis are now very well situated, and the hero of Iraq, the prime minister, has made an inclusive government in Iraq. But it is the opposite."
So he gave an interview to CNN in which he denounced Maliki as a "dictator."
"I wanted to let Mr. Obama know that what he's telling his own people is not correct. And I wanted to tell my people that I have waited enough, and it's time to tell the truth of what's going on inside the government. If Maliki stays in power, dictatorship will be more concentrated."
A week later, in an interview with the BBC, Mutlak compared Maliki unfavorably with Saddam Hussein. "Saddam brought a lot of things to Iraq, like construction and roads and other sorts of things, whereas Maliki doesn't seem to be able to bring about such reforms to the country."
Mutlak's comments angered Maliki, who announced that he would depose Mutlak and sent a request to parliament to oust him from his position. But Kurds refused to take part in the vote and together with Sunni delegates deprived the parliament of a quorum to function.
Mutlak defends his comparison of Maliki and Saddam — "Show me a single building which is being built by Maliki. His office, his home, the parliament, everything was built by Saddam," he told a reporter in Irbil.
Mutlak said Maliki had shown his sectarian colors a month before the Washington trip by refusing to address the issue of ethnic and sectarian imbalance in the general staff of the Iraqi military. Mutlak said an all-party study commission had concluded that under Maliki, 86 percent of the military's top command posts were filled by Shiites and 14 per cent by members of all other sects and nationalities, well more than the 60 to 65 per cent that Shiites represent in the population.
Mutlak said Maliki's response was "I don't believe in that," meaning striving for ethnic and sectarian balance. And then Maliki issued a veiled threat. "We are coming after you, sooner or later," Mutlak quoted him as saying.
"Just imagine when a prime minister talks to me and says 'we are coming after you.'"
Mutlak also blasted Maliki for failing to consult with his cabinet before departing for the meeting with Obama and for not bringing any member of the Iraqiya bloc and only one non-Shiite to Washington.
"It means this was a personal meeting, between the Dawa party (of Maliki) and the Americans," Mutlak said.
Shekhli, the government adviser, defended Maliki's failure to consult his cabinet before going to Washington. "If you make all the people a part of a decision, it will be weak," he said. "At the end, they chose him as prime minister, and they must accept his decisions."
As for labeling Maliki a dictator, he said: "There is no dictatorship here that will last here forever, as Saddam Hussein, or in other Arab countries," he said. "At the end, there will be voting every four years. The people can change the government through the ballot box."
Maliki also has come under criticism for the way he made his terrorism charges against the country's vice president, Tarek el Hashemi, a Sunni. Maliki made the charge via the country's television stations, which aired edited confessions by three former members of Hashemi's security guard charging that he directed them to kill prominent Shiite officials. Maliki has since threatened to air a fourth video.
Hashemi, who's now ensconced in a lakeside villa in Dukan, in the Kurdish north, told McClatchy the charges against him were "nonsense."
"Why is Mr. Hashemi killing a traffic policeman? What is the motive for that?" he said, referring to himself in the third person.
Opponents say televising the video instead of sharing the evidence privately with other political leaders was a Maliki effort to rally Shiites in the face of high unemployment and poor public services.
Western observers here hope that the last month of controversy is merely teething problems of a fledgling democracy and that Iraqis, having survived a bloody sectarian war between 2005 and 2008 that killed thousands, have no appetite for another round.
But the prospect for violence is real, Iraqis agree — perhaps as soon as February, said one government official who asked not to be named because he was giving his personal assessment. By early summer, he added, there could be a major question of whether Iraq will survive as a single country.
Barham Salih, the prime minister of the autonomous Kurdish zone, agreed the situation is alarming. "This is a serious crisis, a real crisis," he told McClatchy.
"We had the Americans around moderating our problems over the last eight years," he said. "Now, essentially the major parties think they're on their own. The power struggle is intensifying... This polarization in Iraq cannot be sustained for much longer. This could get out of control into an all out civil, a proxy war. This is a real danger. "
(McClatchy special correspondent Sahar Issa contributed)
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