Reporting from Baghdad — A recently elected parliament member was in hiding Thursday after the Iraqi security forces raided his home this week on a warrant connected with a bombing case that had been settled in 2008 through a tribal mediation process.
The attempted arrest of Sheik Qais Jabouri, who had worked closely with the Iraqi government on sectarian reconciliation issues, has elicited charges from the secular Iraqiya election slate, on which he was a candidate, that Prime Minister Nouri Maliki is carrying out politically motivated arrests to stay in power after his own Shiite Muslim-led slate finished a close second in national elections March 7.
The arrest attempt was among a series of raids directed against Iraqiya candidates in Baghdad and Diyala provinces. One candidate, Najim Harbi, was taken into custody before the national vote, but he was elected anyway while being held in an undisclosed location. Another elected Iraqiya lawmaker from Jabouri's district, Madaen, southeast of Baghdad, has also gone into hiding after receiving warnings from contacts in the Iraqi security forces that a raid on his home was imminent.
Jabouri is being sought on terrorism charges in connection with the 2008 bombing of a home in Madaen by Sunni Arab insurgents, according to a security officer familiar with the allegations. The victim pressed charges against Jabouri and 35 other tribal leaders in the area, alleging that relatives in their extended tribe were involved in the attack. Iraqi security forces mediated between the victim and the tribal leaders, including Jabouri, who then paid compensation for the damage, the officer said.
Officials close to Maliki have defended the warrant for Jabouri's arrest, calling it a criminal matter that has nothing to do with politics.
"It is not about politics or anything else. The legal process is responsible for this," said Aboud Issawi, an aide in the prime minister's office. "I have strong confidence in the judiciary. It is independent and neutral."
After the announcement last week of election results showing former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's Iraqiya slate winning 91 seats, compared with 89 for Maliki's State of Law slate, the incumbent demanded a ballot-by-ballot recount. Maliki's backers also contended that some Sunni Arab backers of late President Saddam Hussein, who was toppled in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, and terrorists had been elected to the parliament.
A government committee, backed by Maliki, has accused at least six new parliament members of having belonged to Hussein's Baath Party and seeks to ban them. Four of them are members of the Iraqiya list.
The accusations and arrest warrants come as Maliki's State of Law list and Iraqiya compete to see who can cobble together a majority in the 325-member parliament in order to form the next four-year government.
Leaders of Iraqiya, highly popular in Sunni parts of the country, believe Maliki is trying to rob them of victory. "They are trying to play games with us, to pressure Iraqiya. They don't want to give up power and their control of the country," said Falah Naquib, a former interior minister. He said he believes that Maliki will continue to try to arrest his list's leaders unless the U.S. government intervenes. "The balance [of power] in this country is with the Americans," Naquib said.
The prime minister has vigorously defended himself as a protector of democracy, guarding Iraq from hostile neighbors and Hussein sympathizers.
"We must form the government because what we have accomplished for our people cannot be given up," Maliki said in an interview last weekend on the Sumariya television channel.
U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill has told reporters that Maliki assured him he would transfer power peacefully. But the prime minister's behavior has alarmed some foreign observers.
"He is using all instruments of the government to try to discredit an election that until now he fully supported," a Western diplomat said shortly before results were announced last week.
In particular, Jabouri's case has stood out, one Iraqi security officer said, because he was considered a positive figure in his mixed Sunni and Shiite district. Jabouri headed a tribal support council, a body sponsored directly by Maliki's office, and met regularly with senior government officials.
"Honestly we were surprised. He is a well-known figure in the Baghdad operation command. He is a well-known figure" at the prime ministerial and Cabinet levels, said the security officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
"The warrant has been issued for electoral reasons because he is a candidate with the Iraqiya slate and also a winner," the officer said. He explained that figures such as Jabouri, who has worked for a government-sponsored council, cannot be detained without approval from the prime minister's office in its capacity as head of the Cabinet.