BAGHDAD — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki fired dozens of officers from the security and intelligence services early this year and replaced them with inexperienced political officers loyal to his Shiite Dawa party, U.S. officials reported in February, according to newly leaked diplomatic cables.
The firings were carried out under the guise of purging members of Saddam Hussein's long extinct Baath party, but U.S. officials in Baghdad fretted in cables that Maliki would do "serious harm to the intelligence institutions by drumming out experienced and proficient officers," including many Sunni Arabs.
The cables, published on the website of al Akhbar, a left-leaning Beirut daily, bolstered U.S. and Iraqi critics who've accused Maliki of building a sectarian security structure during his first term in office. Maliki, a Shiite, was recently reappointed for a second term and is due to form a new government within weeks.
It wasn't immediately clear how al Akhbar obtained the cables. As of Friday they hadn't been published by the WikiLeaks website, which had released fewer than 700 of the 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables it says it has obtained. However, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said recently that he would release some cables related to the Middle East to media in the Arab world.
Although the firings weren't widely reported at the time, the cables portray a prime minister bent on increasing the influence of party loyalists inside some of Iraq's most powerful and secretive law enforcement agencies on the eve of the March parliamentary elections.
The sacking of up to 376 officers from the Iraqi defense and interior ministries was "rattling regional security leaders and masking ongoing Dawa loyalist cadre-building in the security and intelligence sector," the embassy reported On Feb. 28.
In one such "purge," Maliki's office attempted to fire 36 officers from the national intelligence directorate, known as M2, the embassy reported Feb. 4. The then-head of the directorate, Alaa al Amiri, culled the list to 22 and told U.S. officials that Maliki's original list included mostly Sunnis and "some of the most experienced intelligence officers in the M2."
Maliki's office had also placed 47 new political officers inside the agency, the cable said. All were Shiites, many had previously lived in Iran, and they held educational credentials that Amiri "believes were falsified in many cases." Amiri was later fired.
U.S. officials said that pressures from Shiites to rid the government of Baath party members could "provide cover to place Dawa loyalists in their positions."
"USF-I (the U.S. military), law enforcement, and U.S. intelligence observers have all raised concerns about these moves by Maliki, and their effect on the institutional strength of those agencies affected," said the cable, which carried the name of Gary A. Grappo, then a senior official at the embassy.
Weeks later, Amiri, despite the support of U.S. military officials, "had been ordered to vacate his post within 48 hours" on orders from Maliki's office, the embassy reported. In addition, Maliki had attempted to transfer 17 senior Sunni members of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service to other ministries, such as Youth and Sports.
"Alaa opined that (Maliki's) goal is to increase the Shiite dominance of the M2, which of its 132 officers, 78 percent are Shiite," wrote Robert S. Ford, then the deputy chief of mission at the embassy.
When told of the cables, leading Sunni politicians said that Maliki was abusing the "de-Baathification" laws and weakening key Iraqi institutions.
"This is no surprise," said Mithal al Alusi, a secular Sunni politician. "The prime minister's office is trying to establish an ideological intelligence structure. We don't need that. We need a professional intelligence structure."
U.S. officials have refused to comment on the cables or to confirm their authenticity.
The Feb. 28 cable also indicated that 58 Dawa members had been placed inside the National Information and Investigation Agency, an FBI-like body that the U.S. military in 2008 described as Iraq's "premier national law enforcement agency." At the same time about 125 agency personnel were slated to be removed under de-Baathification.
"We are losing a lot of capable people with de-Baathification. This needs to be stopped," said Saleh al Mutlaq, a leading Sunni politician and ex-Baathist who left the party in 1977.
"This will weaken these institutions, especially when you are replacing them with members of the Dawa party. Their general attitude is only to make the influence of the Dawa party stronger."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY