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Maliki takes control: Iraq's prime minister takes control of the country's security and intelligence services in a pre-election power grab that many fear will ensure his political supremacy.

For months, Iraq's prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, has been systematically amassing control of the country's intelligence and security services in the classic mould of Arab strongmen. His critics, and many ordinary Iraqis, see this as a bid to assume "quasi-dictatorial" powers in the manner of Saddam Hussein.

However, one of the targets of Maliki's purges has been those sections of Iraq's intelligence services that specialised in countering Shi'ite Iran and its efforts to institutionalise its influence in its historical enemy and to subvert US and Sunni Muslim influence. Many Shi'ites see this simply as Iraqis taking control of their own destiny, free of strictures imposed by the invading Americans.

But the US-engineered security infrastructure, intended in large part to counter Iranian envelopment, have been critically, probably irretrievably, weakened at a time when the Americans are drawing down their military forces in Iraq, leaving the country exposed to the Machiavellian machinations of its squabbling political leaders and their sectarian constituencies. With Iran's agenda thus enhanced as the Americans depart, it is likely that the Arab Sunni regimes most involved in Iraq will increase their clandestine activities to counter Iran's advances.

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Maliki's actions in recent months also bear all the hallmarks of a power grab in advance of critical parliamentary elections that were scheduled for this month, but are likely to be postponed because of sectarian rivalries.

It is the nature of Arab intelligence services to ensure, first and foremost, regime survival from within, and the Iraqi services are starting to take on the shape and mission of the very agencies created by Saddam that they were supposed to be replacing.

Maliki's government has overseen a ballooning of the country's security apparatus. Human rights violations are becoming more common. In private, many Iraqis, especially educated ones, are asking if their country may go back to being a police state.

Inside dealings

The ability of Iraqi insurgents to repeatedly carry out murderous suicide bombings in the heavily guarded heart of Baghdad marks an intelligence failure for Maliki's security services. But that isn't surprising, since after the first wave of attacks aimed at the seat of government, the 19 August bombings of the finance and foreign affairs ministries, he sacked nearly 12,000 officials.

They were supposedly suspected of dealings with the outlawed Baath Party, which has been accused of the deadly attacks. But Maliki's drive to take direct control of Iraq's security services began months before those bombings. In December 2008, there was a major crackdown in the Interior Ministry, at that time run by Maliki's Shi'ite rivals. It controls a large part of the national security apparatus. At least 23 officials, including generals and colonels, were arrested. Iraqi officials implied that they were part of a coup plot involving Al Awda (The Return), the successor to Saddam's Baathist apparatus. The ministry denied there was a coup plot. However, the arrests were widely seen as politically motivated to weaken Maliki's rivals before provincial elections that were held in January 2009, and in which he made significant gains.

In August 2009, Maliki sacked three more top men at the Interior Ministry, headed by Jawad Al Bolani, a secular Shi'ite who will be a key Maliki rival in the forthcoming parliamentary elections. Iraqi newspapers identified them as Major General Abdul Karim Khalaf, chief of operations, General Ahmed Abu Rikheed, head of internal affairs; and the director of the explosives division, who was not named.

Early in September, following the first rash of suicide bombings against the heart of government in Baghdad, Maliki sacked several more senior officers at the ministry. His officials explained these as "reassignments" in the aftermath of the bombings. But the sackings were widely perceived as Maliki getting rid of generals who were allies of Bolani. All the officers who were sacked had commanded high-profile operations against Iranian-supported militias in recent months.

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Maliki's aides deny that he's conducting a systematic purge of his rivals. But his critics say that he's acting alone, without consulting parliament or senior political leaders, whipping up political rivalries that could erupt into violence as the elections approach. They believe his next target will be Bolani, widely seen as a close US ally.

Whatever the reason for the Interior Ministry purges, the bombers struck again on z5 October, blasting two more ministries and killing at least 160 people, even though the so-called Green Zone is protected by 50 checkpoints and 10,000 troops and security personnel. A more telling point is that the bombings continued despite the fact that Maliki now controls Iraq's entire security and intelligence system--which could rebound on him when polling eventually takes place. He has centralised power for himself to the extent that he has formed two paramilitary forces, the Baghdad Brigade--also known as "the Dirty Squad" for its nocturnal sweeps arresting Maliki's critics, particularly Sunnis--and the Counter-Terrorism Force. Both report directly to him.

Maliki has recruited tribal militias funded by his office and seized the power of appointing or dismissing army officers, elbowing aside the chief of staff who should have that authority. In the eyes of many, this has transformed the US-trained Iraqi army into a well-armed prime ministerial militia.

The various security services established under the Americans' tutelage have long been wracked by sectarian rivalries and rampant corruption, with agendas that have not always followed that of the central government. Indeed, the agencies the Americans created are widely seen as Frankenstein organisations that conducted clandestine assassination campaigns against those who opposed the US presence. By all accounts, Maliki has simply reforged them for his own purposes: ensuring his political supremacy.

Battle of the spies

Even before Maliki's swingeing purges, Iraq's two main intelligence services--the Iraqi National Intelligence Service (INIS) and the Ministry of Security--had been at daggers drawn for several years. This feud, with the INIS virulently anti-Iranian and the Ministry of Security staunchly pro-Tehran, was central to Maliki's plotting to gather full control of security in his own hands.

The INIS was established by the Central Intelligence Agency in April 2004 as a non-sectarian agency that drew its personnel from all of Iraq's squabbling sects and ethnics groups. But it was essentially a creature of the CIA, which lavished funds upon it--three billion dollars over three years starting in 2004, according to one estimate. The agency, along with another Arab service heavily dependent on CIA largesse, trained the INIS personnel, with Iran firmly in the crosshairs as its main adversary.

The INIS, with a strength of some 6,000 personnel, was headed from the start by a former brigadier general named Mohammed Abdullah Shahwani, a Sunni from Mosul in northern Iraq, who is married to a Shi'ite and whose deputy was a Kurd. Shahwani, who is fiercely anti-Iranian, has had close links to the CIA since 1990.

Shi'ite influence

Shahwani served in the Iraqi army from 1955 to 1984, when he was forced to retire, apparently after falling from favour with Saddam. He eventually fled to Britain in 1990 after the Iraqi dictator's disastrous invasion of Kuwait and joined an anti-Saddam organisation, the Amman-based Iraqi National Accord (INA). That was run by another exile, Ayad Allawi, a Shi'ite who became Iraq's interim prime minister in June 2004. Allawi is known to be close to the CIA and Britain's Secret Intelligence Service.

In 1996, they plotted a coup with disgruntled military men, including Shahwani's three sons who were officers in Saddam's elite Republican Guard. Saddam's security apparatus thwarted the coup plot. Around 90 officers were tortured and executed, including Shahwani's three sons.

In 2005, Shi'ite hardliners, under then prime minister Ibrahim Jafari, tried to take control of the INIS, but the Americans, who did not want pro-Iranian Shi'ites in charge, were able to deflect that move. Now that the Americans are withdrawing, the Shi'ites have finally got their way.

The Ministry of Security was set up in 2007 by Maliki and his allies as a parallel secret service to counter the CIA's creation and is widely considered to be pro-Iranian. Maliki's people insist Iran has no say in how they govern, but the fact remains that the INIS is now controlled directly by Maliki, ending US involvement in the Iraqi government's intelligence apparatus. That's a major triumph for Tehran.

The ministry is headed by Sheerwan Al Waeli, a Shi'ite of Iranian origin. Waeli, a member of Maliki's Ad-Dawa party, was once a colonel in the Iraqi army during Saddam's rule. More recently, he is believed to have undergone training in Iran, and to have maintained links with Iranian and Syrian intelligence officers in Baghdad-although it is questionable whether his connection with the Syrians remains intact, given Maliki's accusations that Damascus harbours Baathist extremists blamed for the recent suicide attacks.

In August, Maliki forced Shahwani to resign. The general, who had been accused of wholesale but unspecified corruption by Maliki's government, fled to the United States with some of his associates. His departure stripped the Americans of a key ally in Baghdad, and leaves Maliki in control of the INIS.

The INIS, with US approval, employed many veterans of Saddam's hated security services. This was largely because they were the only professionals available and, from the US standpoint, had spent decades combating Iran's massive intelligence apparatus. So from its inception, the INIS antagonised the Shi'ite elite, many of them allies of Tehran. These people saw the INIS as a CIA-backed effort to curb their political ambitions and hinder Iranian efforts to dominate post-Saddam Iraq. One of INIS's main missions was to counter Iranian influence among Iraq's Shi'ites, the majority community, and penetration by Iranian agents, who had been operating in Iraq since the Shah's era. It was no surprise that a sizeable number of the Saddam-era operatives that have been recruited came from the disbanded Department 18 of Saddam's Jihaz Al Mukhabarat Al Amma (the General Intelligence Directorate, or GID).

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D18, considered one of the more efficient of Saddam's security units, was the principal agency, along with Military Intelligence's Unit 999, tasked with countering Iranian infiltrations; it conducted destabilisation operations inside Iran, particularly the oil-rich southeastern province of Khuzestan, under the pretext of protecting the Arabic-speaking minority there.

Now many of Shahwani's people have been dismissed or have run for cover as Shi'ite hardliners took control of security. Maliki had issued arrest warrants for 180 of Shahwani's people, who are accused of systematically killing Shi'ites since 2004.

Dozens of INIS agents--290 according to Shahwani--have been killed since 2004 by Iran's intelligence services or by Iranian-backed Shi'ite paramilitaries.
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Title Annotation:CURRENT AFFAIRS; Nouri Al Maliki
Author:Blanche, Ed
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Jan 1, 2010
Words:1752
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