Maliki purge of top Iraqi security officials creates a storm

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Government critics and independent legislators accused Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki on Tuesday of launching a purge of senior security officials in order to weaken political rivals ahead of winter elections.

Maliki ordered the dismissals of at least three senior officials from the Interior Ministry over the weekend, Iraqi newspapers reported Tuesday: Maj. Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf, the ministry's commander of operations; Gen. Ahmed Abu Rikheef, the head of internal affairs; and the director of the explosives division, who wasn't identified in the reports.

Allies of Maliki, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the matter, described the dismissals as "reassignments" because of security breaches related to the attack Aug. 19 on government ministries that killed about 100 people and wounded hundreds of others. The bombings — a brazen assault on the heart of the government — embarrassed Maliki's administration and shook Iraqis' faith in the security gains of the past year.

Khalaf and Rikheef are well-known to Iraqis for their highly publicized involvement last year in major operations against Iranian-backed militias. They also are said to be close allies of Interior Minister Jawad al Bolani, who's expected to challenge Maliki in the January elections. Iraqi lawmakers charged that Maliki is trying to weaken Bolani and his allies as the campaign season begins and that Bolani himself might be removed if Maliki can muster enough legislative support.

"Legally, as commander general of the armed forces, Maliki has the authority to bring about such changes. But like this? A decision by one man? High-ranking commanders dismissed without formal investigation? It looks political: a settling of scores or the removal of people who are undesirable for reasons other than professional ones," said Abdul Kareem al Samarrai, a Sunni Muslim lawmaker who serves on the Iraqi parliament's security committee.

Hadi al Ameri, a Shiite Muslim legislator who's the chairman of the security committee, said he wasn't sure why the commanders were dismissed. He said that if the matter were related to the bombings, "then it is acceptable, because it is they who are responsible for providing security in Baghdad, and they failed miserably."

Ameri said the Iraqi Constitution set out the protocol for hiring and firing high-ranking commanders. However, he said, those rules were set aside in the past in order to fill sensitive positions fast in the fight against terrorism.

"The parliament, early on, delegated many powers to the executive branch in order to cut through the bureaucracy and make things move faster," Ameri said. "So these commanders were appointed by the executive branch and may be dismissed by that branch, too."

Aides in Maliki's office denied that the prime minister had begun an orchestrated purge of his rivals but declined to discuss details of the three Interior Ministry officials' cases.

"I don't believe the existence of a campaign; maybe it's just some negligent officials in individual cases," said Ali al Musawi, a media adviser to Maliki. "This has nothing to do with politics. Although the explosions are one of the reasons, there are other reasons."

Maliki's critics in parliament think that the main reason is to sideline Bolani, whom they described as a close ally of the U.S. command in Baghdad.

"Maliki wants to clip his wings," said a senior Shiite Iraqi politician who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity. "They want to eliminate Bolani as a potential thorn who's under the Americans' control."

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad declined to comment on the matter, saying it was an internal Iraqi affair.

Even some of Maliki's harshest critics agreed that the government should hold officials accountable for the security lapses that led to the ministry bombings. However, they said, the abrupt dismissals of some of Iraq's most seasoned security commanders without an official investigation or the consultation of parliament tarnished the government's image and aggravated long-standing political battles that are likely to escalate in the run-up to the vote.

"I don't think this campaign is only about the security ministries, but will expand to include those who are difficult to co-opt," said Shatha al Musawi, an independent Shiite legislator. "The general situation of the state is heading toward a crisis. There are only political deals now because we're close to the election. Anyone who holds different ideology (from Maliki) will be the next target."

(McClatchy special correspondents Sahar Issa and Jenan Hussein contributed to this article.)


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