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Monday, November 24, 2008
Iraq's prime minister, president in public quarrel
BAGHDAD (AP) -— Iraq's presidential council has taken the unusual step of publicly criticizing the Shiite prime minister after he berated them for their opposition to councils of loyal tribesmen in several Iraqi provinces.
The quarrel is the latest in a series of political setbacks that underline enduring rivalries between Iraq's political factions as the country struggles to find its footing after years of brutal violence.
The dispute between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani and Talabani's two deputies comes with Iraqis already polarized by a proposed security agreement with the United States that would allow American troops to stay in Iraq for three more years.
Groups opposed to the pact say it enshrines what they see as Iraq's occupation. Proponents, like al-Maliki, say it is the only viable way for Iraq to regain its full sovereignty by 2012.
At the center of the new dispute between al-Maliki and Talabani are the ""support councils"" made up of pro-government tribesmen that began to spring up earlier this year when the prime minister took charge of military operations against Shiite militias in southern Iraq.
The councils were seen by many as an attempt by the prime minister ahead of Jan. 31 provincial elections to create a support base in areas where his Shiite rivals to counter the weight of U.S.-backed groups made up of tribesmen and former insurgents.
Al-Maliki has said the councils are needed as a backup for official security forces — similar to the Sunni groups that joined forces with the Americans against al-Qaeda in Iraq.
But Talabani's office disagrees. In a letter to al-Maliki dated Nov. 18 and issued late Friday after al-Maliki made their quarrel public, the presidential council said the resources being funneled to the councils would be better used to bolster Iraq's security forces.
""It is our constitutional duty to demand that you intervene and order the relevant authorities to suspend the work of these councils until we arrive at an agreement that provides them with legal and administrative cover,"" according to the letter.
Al-Maliki did not specifically mention that letter in his televised news conference on Thursday. But he said Talabani and his two deputies were picking on the support councils while ignoring what he said was a long list of constitutional violations by the self-rule Kurdish region government in northern Iraq.
In response, Talabani, a Sunni Kurd, and his two deputies — vice presidents Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Arab, and Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a Shiite — issued a statement late Friday criticizing al-Maliki for airing their differences in public.
The statement said the presidential council had decided to publicize its letter to al-Maliki ""to avoid misunderstandings among members of the public about an issue (the support councils) on which it is exercising its right, indeed its duty, to supervise the workings of the state and its concern that the constitution and the law must be implemented.""
If al-Maliki felt strongly about organizing pro-government tribesmen into groups, they should be part of civil society and not involved in security, it said.
Al-Maliki has for months been at loggerheads with Kurdish authorities. He said the presidential council should respond to Kurdish ""violations"" instead of criticizing the support councils.
He cited a decision by Kurdish authorities to sign contracts with foreign oil companies without the knowledge of the central government, to set up diplomatic representation offices in foreign capitals and to offer to host U.S. military bases on its territory.
The Kurds have faced persecution under successive Arab governments in Iraq. But many Iraqis now complain the Kurds are flexing their muscles too much, running their region as an independent nation and insisting on a representation in government that's disproportionate to the size of their community, which is about 20 percent of the population.
Massoud Barzani, the nationalist president of the self-rule Kurdish region, has complained that creating support councils in disputed areas, like the oil rich northern Kirkuk region claimed by the Kurds, has stoked conflict. The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the country's largest Shiite party and a close ally of the Kurds, has ordered the provincial governments it dominates in the Shiite south not to cooperate with the support councils.
Al-Maliki, like Sunni Arabs, objects to that plan and has recently called for amendments to the constitution to give the central government more powers.
The call riled the Kurds as well as their friends in the Supreme Council.
""We believe al-Maliki is trying to impose a tyranny of a sort,"" said Kurdish lawmaker Abdul-Khaleq Zangana.