Of Coups and Conspiracies

As if Nouri al-Maliki didn't have enough to worry about. Aside from rising violence and his government's laggardly progress on a slew of political and legislative benchmarks set by the U.S., the Iraqi prime minister also seems increasingly consumed by fears of coups and conspiracies. Iraqi media reported this week that Maliki once again accused certain Iraqi politicians of "conspiring" against the government with the help of "foreign intelligence." And Al-Hayat newspaper reported that Iraqi security officials had detained a number of tribal chiefs and former Iraqi Army officers in Dhi Qar province "for their proven links to the intelligence services of an Arab state . . . and for supplying moral, material and logistical support for armed groups that operate in southern Iraq."

Though Maliki hasn't publicly named the alleged coup mastermind, Iraqi media and everyone else assumes he means former prime minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite politician who spent many years in exile in London. The fact that Allawi and his aides have been circling Arab capitals for months--popping up in Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and so forth--to drum up regional support has further unnerved Maliki's team.

For his part, Allawi derides the notion that he's plotting a coup. "Due to its own failures, the government has been trying to blame others. It's a joke," Allawi told NEWSWEEK in a recent phone interview, "They've been saying this for a year--what kind of coup would take a year to materialize?"

Still, Allawi makes no secret of the fact that he's trying to form a new parliamentary bloc. He and his colleagues hope to gather enough votes to replace Maliki's administration, which has become increasingly identified with sectarian bloodshed and lack of progress on political reconciliation. "What we want to do is stop the country's continuing slide into a black tunnel of sectarianism, chaos and anarchy," says Allawi. His group is attempting--so far without success--to cement alliances among his own Iraqi National List, the Sunni Islamic party and "Iraqi National Dialogue" front, plus smaller Shiite, Kurdish and Turkomen groups.

Maliki's conspiracy theories predate his becoming prime minister. In preparation for Iraq's December 2005 elections, a group of intelligence chiefs representing neighboring nations with Sunni majorities, plus the United States and Britain, began meeting to discuss ways "to help encourage Sunnis to participate in the elections, and to contain Iran," says Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. He told NEWSWEEK that many politicians who ultimately became part of Maliki's Shiite-led government frowned on the activities of this group--dubbed "six plus two"--because it funneled "intelligence capability and financial muscle" to certain, presumably Sunni, groups. (The "six" refer to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Jordan and Kuwait.)

After Maliki became prime minister, the "six plus two" continued to meet without Iraqi participation. "I complained that they were discussing Iraq, but we weren't even present," says Zebari. Maliki and his aides were especially irritated when some junior "six plus two" officials gathered for a meeting in Cairo, just before the Sharm el-Sheikh foreign ministers' conference on Iraq security. Allawi and some of his political allies chose that moment to visit Cairo as well, Zebari said, and speculation swirled that the ex-PM or his cohorts had met some members of the "six plus two" crowd.

One name at the center of this spy-versus-spy controversy is Irshad Zebari, who allegedly made contact with Arab intelligence officials in Cairo. A Kurdish tribal leader and former Saddam-era minister, he launched a new party not long ago. (He also happens to be a cousin of the Iraqi foreign minister, though the two remain on opposite sides of the political spectrum.)

Iraq's two most prominent mainstream Kurdish leaders--Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan region -- were infuriated to hear of Irshad Zebari's alleged role. They accused Allawi of allying with "notorious traitors of the Kurdish people, orphans of the butcher Saddam." The criticism was a "serious blow" to Allawi's political aspirations, as Iraq's foreign minister put it. (Allawi says rumors that Irshad Zebari had acted on his behalf were "misinformation" and insisted, "he is not one of the groups or individuals we've targeted in our dialogue; we have nothing in common with him.")

Still, Maliki remains insecure, and has sought reassurances from his American and British backers. In a May meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in Baghdad, Maliki brought up his worries about being ousted. That prompted Blair to volunteer that he had not met Allawi in London, that he didn't intend to meet Allawi and that both he and U.S. President George Bush backed Maliki's government.

U.S. leaders have also sought to convince Maliki that they're not maneuvering to replace him. "He is the man in the job," says American Ambassador to Baghdad Ryan Crocker, who told NEWSWEEK that politicians such as Allawi "can serve Iraq's interests better by being here [in Baghdad], not in foreign capitals." But the clock is ticking, and Maliki's government is slipping further and further behind in achieving the benchmarks that Washington had hoped could be met by September. The question is whether Maliki's desperation to cling to the top job is holding him back from doing that job properly.