Wednesday, September 26, 2007

BAGHDAD — Nearly two months after Sunni Arab ministers walked out, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appears to have weathered a political crisis that once threatened to bring down his government.

Using a mix of brinkmanship, political cunning and strong U.S. support, the Shi’ite leader now appears to have seized the political initiative from his opponents.

“I am victorious whether I stay in office or someone else takes over the helm,” Mr. al-Maliki told Alhurra television in an interview aired Monday night.

He confidently dismissed charges by his Sunni Arab critics that he was pursuing sectarian policies, and he brushed aside criticism that he has failed to win over the Arab world’s Sunni-dominated regimes.

In the continuing violence, a suicide car bomber yesterday attacked a police headquarters in Basra, killing at least three police officers, wounding 20 persons and raising fears about security in the oil-rich southern city now that British forces have withdrawn.

Mr. al-Maliki blamed parliament for blocking legislation and holding up the appointments of new ministers by often failing to muster a quorum. He took credit for the U.S.-backed revolt by Sunni tribal chiefs against al Qaeda in Anbar province, a one-time stronghold of insurgents.

In an attempt to extend that progress, Sunni and Shi’ite tribal leaders gathered under heavy security yesterday for a reconciliation meeting southwest of Baghdad, a day after a suicide bomber killed at least 37 persons at a similar meeting in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of the capital.

The U.S. announced this month that top leaders of 19 of the 25 major tribes in Diyala — 13 Sunni and six Shi’ite — agreed to end sectarian violence and support the government in its fight against al Qaeda in Iraq.

Mr. al-Maliki, who meets with President Bush this week on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meetings, owes his survival in no small part to White House support and the failure of his critics to close ranks against him.

Six Sunni Arab ministers quit Mr. al-Maliki’s government in early August over his failure to meet demands that included the release of security detainees not charged with specific crimes, disbanding militias and wider inclusion in decision-making on security issues.

The six come from the Iraq Accordance Front, parliament’s largest Sunni Arab bloc with 44 of the house’s 275 seats. It is made up of three parties: Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi’s moderate Iraqi Islamic Party, the hard-line Congress of the People of Iraq led by Adnan al-Dulaimi and the National Dialogue Council headed by Sheik Khalaf al-Ilyan.

One of the six ministers who pulled out, Planning Minister Ali Baban, returned to his post last week. He was expelled by the Iraq Accordance Front and is in New York with Mr. al-Maliki.

Another Accordance Front member, Deputy Prime Minister Salam al-Zobaie, met with Mr. al-Maliki on Thursday against the advice of his comrades and is said to be considering a comeback.

Lawmakers and al-Maliki aides say Washington’s strong support was key to his survival.

The prime minister solidified his position when his Dawa party joined the “alliance of moderates,” comprising the two main Kurdish parties and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the country’s largest Shi’ite party.

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