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With US gone, Iraq's Maliki is setting the board for a power grab

Iraq's Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has wasted little time since the US departure, with politically motivated terrorism charges against his Sunni vice president and moves to oust other opponents from the government.

By Staff writer / December 21, 2011

Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki walks off stage after addressing the US Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Washington, Dec. 13.

Cliff Owen/AP

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Iraq is in political crisis, less than a week after the formal end of direct US involvement in the war there. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has brought terrorism charges against Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, is moving to oust Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlaq from his position, and has threatened to take away the nine cabinet seats held by the largely Sunni Iraqiyya bloc and replace them with members of his own Shiite governing coalition.

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Mr. Hashemi, a Sunni Islamist who heads the Iraqi Islamic Party, is a member of the Iraqiyya bloc, and had a number of close family members murdered during Iraq's civil war. Hashemi had some ties to Iraq's insurgency during the worst of the fighting (when former Monitor reporter Jill Carroll was released by her Sunni kidnappers in 2006, she was dropped off in front of his office) but has worked as much as any on his side of the fence to forge sectarian reconciliation in the years since. 

But now he has fled to Kurdistan, where he's being shielded from his arrest warrant. In a televised news conference today, Mr. Maliki threatened the Kurdish north with "problems" if they don't hand over Hashemi.

IN PICTURES: Leaving Iraq

Iraqiyya's legislators have walked out of parliament while the group attempts to hang on to its cabinet seats, which are the valves of political patronage in the new Iraq. While Maliki's threat to simply appoint his own ministers is unconstitutional, the Constitution has been increasingly ignored when inconvenient.

With Iraqiyya being politically hounded, a return to open civil war in Iraq is a real possibility. The group effectively represents Sunni interests in the country. Sunni voters turned out enthusiastically in 2010 after past electoral boycotts, and the group was in effect an experiment in whether they could gain a real political voice in the country through the ballot box. The failure of that experiment will send a worrying message.

How did we get here? Last year, Maliki and fellow Shiite politicians deftly outmaneuvered Iraqiyya to hold on to power after elections. The new prime minister assured his erstwhile American benefactors and Iraq's Sunni Arabs that power sharing arrangements would be found to mollify fears that a new tyranny of the majority was emerging in Iraq. That's one reason three "vice president" posts were created, including the one Hashemi now holds.

Sure, Iraqiyya had won a plurality of seats in the new parliament and so by rights should have been allowed to form Iraq's government. But Maliki had simply cobbled together a stronger coalition, all part of the democratic game. Fears that Shiite Islamists will lord it over Iraq's Sunni Arab minority (about 40 percent of the population)? Don't worry, Maliki said. I'm creating a super-committee to share power to give Iyad Allawi (the former Baathist who leads Iraqiyya) a meaningful seat at the table.

The powerful defense and interior ministries? Maliki said: Don't worry, we'll set those aside for now but I'm sure a reasonable compromise will be worked out to place respected figures in those posts who will quell concerns they're being transformed into tools of political oppression.

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