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Originally published Wednesday, December 3, 2008 at 1:55 AM

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Iraq's president steps up row over PM's councils

Iraq's president is going to the country's federal court to try to stop Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki from establishing tribal councils - a move that major political parties fear is aimed at bolstering the Shiite leader's stature ahead of elections next year.

Associated Press Writer

BAGHDAD —

Iraq's president is going to the country's federal court to try to stop Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki from establishing tribal councils - a move that major political parties fear is aimed at bolstering the Shiite leader's stature ahead of elections next year.

President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and his Sunni and Shiite deputies have publicly criticized al-Maliki over the councils, which the prime minister insists are aimed at supporting government security forces. So far, al-Maliki has ignored the critics.

"Nouri al-Maliki is my friend and enjoys the confidence of parliament," Talabani said Monday in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah. "He is not budging and remains adamant that creating these councils is legal. We will go to the federal court to see whether this is indeed the case."

The dispute between al-Maliki and Talabani points to the enduring rivalries between Iraq's ethnic and sectarian factions as the country struggles to recover from years of brutal violence.

The prime minister began establishing these councils last winter. They are supposed to work for reconciliation between tribes and religious sects, help displaced families return home, advise local governments on reconstruction projects, help Sunni volunteers receive jobs in the Iraqi Security Forces and create social programs in their areas.

In a message last month to Talabani, al-Maliki said the councils were part of the government's security system "which is still fragile because of the remaining terrorist 'sleeper cells' and outlaws."

Al-Maliki said that anyone using the councils to promote the prime minister's political party would be fired. The message was released by the prime minister's office Wednesday.

But the government has provided the councils with a lot of money. Critics see them as nothing more than a patronage system helping al-Maliki shore up his political support at the expense of other parties, including his own coalition partners.

Much of the criticism has come from the Kurds. That threatens to revive bitterness between Iraq's Arab majority and the long-oppressed Kurdish minority. It will also stoke tension in the ruling coalition, in which the Kurds are partners, and hinder national reconciliation.

On Monday, Iraq's self-ruled Kurdish region took the unusual step of publicly chastising al-Maliki, accusing him in a 10-page statement of fomenting strife in areas where Kurdish claims of ownership are disputed by Arabs and others and of monopolizing power in a Dawa party clique of aides.

It said al-Maliki's support councils in northern Iraqi areas claimed by the Kurds were causing instability, sowing divisions and undermining efforts for reconciliation.

"The prime minister must be told that it is his duty to create a climate of national reconciliation and not destroy whatever reconciliation that has been built," said the statement, which repeated criticism by Iraq's three-man presidential council that legal and constitutional coverage must be found for the councils.

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A senior al-Maliki aide closely involved in the creation of the councils denied the Kurdish claims, saying the councils were not partisan or armed. The aide said none was created in Kurdish areas or in the Kirkuk region, an oil-rich swath of territory in northern Iraq that the Kurds want to annex to their region.

"We have 3,800 tribal sheiks in the councils and I dare them to produce a single one who can say we talked to him about supporting a certain party," said the aide, Mohammed Salman.

"Those who level accusations must produce proof," he told The Associated Press.

Al-Maliki and the Kurds have for months been at odds over what the prime minister sees as their persistent attempts to project influence beyond the borders of their 17-year-old, three-province region in northern Iraq and the boundaries of their authority.

Their quarrel had mostly been away from the public eye until last month when al-Maliki delivered a scathing attack on the Kurdish regional government in a news conference, accusing it of encroaching on the authority of the central government by signing contracts with oil firms without clearing them first with Baghdad, setting up representative offices abroad and offering to host U.S. military bases.

A recent call by al-Maliki to amend the constitution to give the central government more powers also has riled the Kurds as well as the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. The latter, the country's largest Shiite party and the senior partner in the prime minister's ruling coalition, wants to create a self-rule region in the Shiite south of Iraq similar to the Kurdish one.

"The prime minister has pledged to protect and implement the constitution, but he now sees the same constitution as a problem," said Monday's Kurdish statement.

---

Associated Press reporter Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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