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Critics accuse Iraq's Maliki of a power grab

BAGHDAD — A controversial Iraqi court ruling has sparked new fears that Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki is consolidating power, and it's raised questions about whether one of the country's most influential courts is in Maliki's pocket.

In response to a request by the prime minister, Iraq's Federal Supreme Court ruled last week that several important government bodies — including the central bank, the electoral commission and the top anti-corruption council — fall under the authority of the Cabinet, which Maliki heads.

The ruling, which a senior judicial official said couldn't be appealed, was the latest in a string of decisions by the court — which has jurisdiction over constitutional matters — that favor Maliki. Opposition lawmakers accused the prime minister of a power grab, perhaps setting the stage for a fight over the constitution in parliament.

The controversy illustrates the widespread anxiety over Maliki's tendencies toward authoritarian rule, two months into his second term, even after he unveiled a Cabinet last month that includes members of rival parties. It underscores the fragility of Iraq's democratic institutions less than a year before U.S. troops are to complete their withdrawal.

"The move has no legal basis," said Qassim al Aboudi, a judge and a member of Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission. "This will have very grave consequences for the course of democracy in this country."

Central bank officials worried that the decision could imperil Iraq's cash-strapped economy as it struggles with multi-billion-dollar reconstruction needs.

"Through this ruling, Iraq will lose control over its funds and deposits outside the country," Sinan al Shibeebi, the central bank governor, said in a statement. "The independence of the central bank was, and still is, the only guarantee against seizure and confiscation of Iraqi funds by international creditors."

A spokesman for Maliki's office didn't immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

The prime minister, who secured a second term in November, has faced broad criticism for hoarding power during his first term. His supporters have argued that a strong government was needed to pull Iraq out of sectarian civil war, but many think that Maliki took that too far, particularly in the security arena, where he built a paramilitary force under his office's command and inserted members of his Shiite Islamist Dawa Party into the intelligence services.

The ruling, which was announced on the court's website Jan. 18, said Iraq's independent commissions should be connected directly to the Cabinet, not the parliament.

According to some legal experts, that contradicts Iraq's Constitution, which says the central bank should be "independent in funding and administration" and "will be responsible for its work to the parliament." It also says that the election commission, the anti-corruption watchdog and the high commission for human rights "will be independent commissions subject to the supervision of the parliament."

"Maliki is trying to control as much power as he can right now," said Rahman Aljebouri, an Iraq expert at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington. "These institutions can play major roles in pressuring his competitors and enemies in the near future."

It was the latest in a series of rulings by the Federal Supreme Court that favored Maliki.

Last March, the day that election results gave a narrow parliamentary victory to the prime minister's rival bloc, Ayad Allawi's Iraqiya coalition, Maliki asked the court for a recount. Six weeks later, the court ordered a manual recount, which changed the results only marginally.

Also in March, the court ruled that parliamentary blocs could realign after elections in order to bolster their numbers, despite electoral commission rules that say blocs must be formed well before voters go to the polls. Analysts interpreted this as a way for the prime minister's State of Law bloc to add seats after it had finished second to Iraqiya.

In July, the court ruled that only legislation that originated from the prime minister's office or the presidency could become law. The parliament, it said, was allowed only to make proposals.

"The ruling of the federal court confirms our repeated warnings against the dangers of politicizing Iraqi courts," Maysoun al Damlouji, a lawmaker from the Iraqiya bloc, said in a statement.

"We not only consider this ruling to be a coup upon the constitution, but upon democracy itself and the very meaning of independence."

(Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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