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Iraq’s Prime Minister Gains More Power After Political Crisis (NY) TIMES) By TIM ARANGO BAGHDAD, IRAQ 02/28/12)Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/28/world/middleeast/maliki-wields-more-power-in-iraq-after-crisis.html NEW YORK TIMES NEW YORK TIMES Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
BAGHDAD — When Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki rounded up hundreds of former Baathists, accused the vice president of running a hit squad and threatened to use the apparatus of state to target other top Sunni leaders, some rivals and critics said that Mr. Maliki’s authoritarian streak had finally antagonized enough of Iraq’s political class to jeopardize his hold on power.

Instead, Mr. Maliki appears to have emerged from a potentially destabilizing political crisis with even more power over the Iraqi state and more popularity among his Shiite constituents, many people here said.

“People trust him more and more after this,” said Rahman Tal Jukon, a retired businessman in Hilla, a town in the Shiite-dominated south where expressions of support for Mr. Maliki, once tepid, are now more common and enthusiastic. “He is a brave man. He has guts.”

Mr. Maliki’s political calculus, pushing to the edge of a full-blown crisis, appears to have paid off, though worries remain that Iraq is sliding toward one-man, one-party rule under Mr. Maliki. His rivals among the Sunnis are busy retrenching as their political leadership fractures, causing a pervasive feeling that Sunnis have lost any meaningful stake in Iraqi public life.

In a recent report, Ramzy Mardini, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, wrote: “It is clear that Maliki has come out as the winner in the political crisis he provoked. He has made it more difficult for his Shia rivals to dissent while simultaneously confining his Sunni opponents in a position suitable for exerting pressure and exploiting divisions within their ranks.”

Iraqiya, the largely Sunni bloc of lawmakers that is led by a secular Shiite, Ayad Allawi, was forced to end boycotts of Parliament and the cabinet that were staged to protest Mr. Maliki’s actions, without winning any rewards. Members of the bloc have split, and some ministers refused to participate in the boycott, adding to a sense that Sunni optimism after the 2010 parliamentary elections, when Iraqiya won the most seats, has dissipated completely.

Zuhair Araji, a former Iraqiya member who withdrew from the party, called the boycott “unwise” and said the alliance had embarrassed itself.

Similar sentiments are heard in the capital’s Sunni neighborhoods. “Iraqiya came back to the Parliament and the government because they failed and they have lost all their popularity in Iraq,” said Aymen Fakhry, who lives in Adhamiya.

Obaida al-Jobori, a Sunni and a restaurant owner in the Karada neighborhood of Baghdad, said: “Sunnis made a big mistake when they decided not to participate in the political process with the Shias and Kurds. They proved Sunni leaders are not experienced enough to help their people in the right manner.”

Two months ago, just as the last American troops were leaving, Iraq seemed at the edge of the abyss. The American ambassador cut short his vacation to rush back to Baghdad. President Jalal Talabani returned from knee surgery in Germany to mediate the crisis. The vice president and top Sunni politician, Tariq al-Hashimi, left Baghdad, running from an arrest warrant on terrorism charges. A spate of attacks wrought familiar scenes of grief and bloodshed. Politically, analysts worried that the government was close to collapse and that its fracturing would start a new civil war.

Mr. Maliki has made some concessions. Local officials say many of the former Baathists who were arrested late last year have been released. And to head off efforts made by Sunni-dominated regions to gain more autonomy, Mr. Maliki has pushed for legal amendments that would give provinces more autonomy on budgets and the right of consent over when national security forces are deployed within their borders.

“There was no crisis from the beginning, but problems, you could say,” said Ali al-Allaq, a member of Parliament from Mr. Maliki’s Dawa Party and a close adviser to the prime minister.

Mr. Allaq, his head wrapped in a black turban as he glanced at his two iPhones resting on a tabletop, described the problems as those that “any young democracy would have.”

The overarching question for Iraq is how long it can continue without genuine reconciliation before the sectarian divide leads the country back to bloodshed.

While Mr. Maliki cemented his support among the Shiite majority and neutralized rivals from his own sect, like the radical cleric Moktada al-Sadr, Sunnis seem more adrift than ever. That is a potentially combustible set of circumstances when coupled with the chaos across the border in Syria, where the country’s Sunni majority is battling a government whose leaders adhere to an offshoot of Shiism.

“Sunnis after 2003 are like fish inside a small pool with a shark,” said Mayson Merza, a Sunni who lives in Karada. “They can’t get out, and they can’t remain inside. We have a very sectarian government, which is looking to eliminate all Sunnis and replace them by thieves and Iranian agents out to destroy Iraq and the Arab nation.”

After the crisis erupted in December, analysts warned the country was on the edge of a civil war. “There has been a rapid and widespread deterioration of security in Iraq since the mid-December end of the U.S. military mission there,” Michael Knights, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington, wrote this month in The National Interest.

After a bloody January — by some accounts a deadlier month than any last year — February had been on pace to be one of the least violent months since the American-led invasion nine years ago, until a series of car bomb attacks in Baghdad and around the country on Thursday left more than 40 people dead. The Iraqi psyche, weighted by history and past grievances, still frames political issues through a simplistic sectarian lens: Shiites fear the restoration of Sunni power, and many Sunnis — who feel they are the natural leaders — are beholden to their resentments over the Shiite empowerment wrought by America’s war.

Mr. Jukon, the retired businessman in Hilla, spoke of Sunni domination from the British colonial mandate after World War I until the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003. “That affects how some people see this,” he said of the political crisis.

Ahmed al-Khafaji, the deputy interior minister, a Shiite whose life, like many Iraqi leaders, was shaped by years in exile in Iran, dismissed criticisms that the Iraqi state had shut out Sunnis from power.

“Freedom is the most important thing,” he said.

“Here is an Islamic newspaper,” he said, waving it about. He pointed to his laptop, and his cellphone. “Now we have 600 satellite channels.”

He echoed the familiar refrain here that it will take generations to achieve a durable sectarian co-existence.

“With time, democracy will continue, and one day we will be like Switzerland, or France or the Italians,” he said. “In the United States in the 1960s, a black man couldn’t get on a bus, and now Obama is president.”

Yasir Ghazi and employees of The New York Times contributed reporting. (Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company 02/28/12)


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