With Iraqi parliament approving pact, Maliki's stature grows

BAGHDAD — In a country where agreements are hard to reach, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki built a broad political coalition to muscle through a divisive U.S.-Iraq security pact that could set his place in his nation's history as the man who ended the American occupation.

He took the mantle of a nationalist in televised remarks Thursday night after the pact he helped broker passed parliament by a landslide 149-35 vote.

"We have gotten an important achievement by signing the withdrawal agreement for the foreign troops from Iraq and bringing back its sovereignty," he said.

That's a major role change for Maliki, who came to power in 2006 as a sectarian Shiite lawmaker propped up by a tenuous coalition of political blocs. He has taken an increasingly assertive role as Iraq's leader since March, when he launched a military offensive in Basra against Shiite militias loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al Sadr.

Maliki put his fingerprints all over the U.S. security agreement, condemning early drafts as unsatisfactory to telegraph his toughness to the Iraqi people in the spring and summer.

He changed course and endorsed the deal only two weeks ago, when he said the Americans had met most of his demands, including ones Washington was reluctant to yield ground on, such as setting a timetable for the American withdrawal and giving Iraqis more authority over U.S. military operations here.

"Prime Minister Maliki drove an extremely tough bargain," said Army Col. Peter Mansoor, who worked closely with Gen. David Petraeus in implementing the surge strategy that contributed to security gains in Iraq in 2007.

Maliki "had to, given that any agreement that kept American troops in Iraq, even for a defined period of time, was going to be looked at skeptically by the people in Iraq," said Mansoor, now a professor of military history at Ohio State University.

The agreement calls on the U.S. military to pull back from cities and towns by June, to consult with the government of Iraq before conducting an operation and to withdraw completely from the country by Dec. 31, 2011.

It denies judicial immunity to foreign military contractors, and it prohibits the U.S. from attacking other countries from bases in Iraq.

Maliki's supporters call the pact an unmitigated victory for the prime minister.

"He's come all this way with hard bargaining and negotiation until he achieved almost everything he asked for,” said Haider al Abadi, a parliament member from Maliki's Dawa party.

His detractors worry that this victory could put Maliki on the cusp of becoming a strong Shiite leader that they liken to a dictator.

Bartering over the agreement among Iraqi lawmakers exposed disputes that could crack the strong central government Maliki is trying to craft. If Maliki loses ground, parties that aim to weaken his government could gain in their attempts to cut powerful regional governments that would rival the capital.

Some Iraqi parties tempered his victory on the agreement by insisting on compromises in a companion resolution that calls for political reform. They're aiming to keep a toehold in power, possibly by amending Iraq's constitution.

The political fault line centers on Maliki's effort to reach out to Iraqi tribes through organizations called support councils. He views them as an extension of the Sunni Awakening, an American-supported effort in 2006 and 2007 to fight al Qaida in Iraq by working closely with Sunni tribes.

But on these councils the tribes are paid for from Maliki's office and loyal to the central government.

Opponents fear they'll be used to boost Maliki's party in next year's elections at their expense and with the sway of cash steal support from politically powerful parties such as the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in the north and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq that dominates in the Shiite south.

The councils also trigger concerns that Maliki will use their political power to diminish Kurdish power in the disputed areas such as oil rich Kirkuk and northern Nineveh province in Iraq’s north, and in the south kill a dream of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq for a federal Shiite region in the south.

By that reasoning, the support councils keep the tribes appeased and working on behalf of the Iraqi government.

But opponents call the councils armed militias that answer to the prime minister but work outside the Iraqi military and police. They fear they'll be used to boost Maliki’s party in next year’s elections at their expense.

"We fear that this experiment will harm the security situation in the country because we have an army and police which have the tasks of defending the country and the citizens, so there is no need for forming these councils," said Furat Shaah, the chairman of the Supreme Council in the southern city of Basra.

"It is a dictatorship," President Massoud Barzani, a Kurd, said of the support councils in a television interview two weeks ago. "The members who are working for these councils are traitors and we will deal with them as an enemy force."

Tribes take a reverse argument, contending that the support councils are essential to counter the strength not only of terrorists, but also of the Kurdish Peshmerga in northern cities.

They worry that Kurds are trying to expand their territory, and they view Maliki as their ally against parties that would break up Iraq, said Sheikh Ali Hatem, a tribal leader from the Anbar province.

"Maliki has two halves, like any human being," Hatem said. "He gave us his positive side and stood by the tribes and left the sectarian quarter.

"For this reason, we're betting on his good part and we have succeeded," he said.

The Kurdish National Alliance and the Supreme Council were two of the four parties that lifted Maliki to power in 2006. Both are taking steps to break with Maliki over the support councils, though they stood with him on the security agreement.

Maliki alienated a third party — a bloc tied to radical cleric Muqtada al Sadr — in the spring when he launched the offensive against Sadr’s militia in Basra.

That moment proved to Iraqis that Maliki wasn’t afraid to tackle his allies to fight rogue militias that crippled Iraq with violence.

Maliki made the move without consulting the American military, which came in to support the Iraqi forces after the initial attack.

"The fact is he made it stick," Mansoor said. "He staked his political future on this decision, and when he made it work, it won him respect from every political bloc, with the exception of the Sadrists."

"aliki has managed to cross the ethnic-sectarian boundaries, and now he’s appealing to all Iraqis," badi said. "He proved his fairness, his leadership and his statesmanship."

(Ashton writes for the Modesto (Calif.) Bee)