BAGHDAD // The Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, has increased his hold on power after gaining control over key state institutions, which had previously been independent, including the electoral commission, central bank and human rights watchdog.
Since starting his second term as prime minister last month, Mr al Maliki already had unprecedented personal control over the ministry of defence, ministry of interior and ministry of national security. After this latest move, he is now also in charge of overseeing how elections are run in Iraq, how the central bank allocates funds and how human rights abuses and corruption inside his government are to be investigated.
Civil servants as well as Mr al Maliki's political opponents - and even some of his allies - have reacted with alarm, saying Iraq's fledgling democracy may have been fatally undermined.
"It's a coup," said Leyla Khafaji, a National Alliance MP, part of the coalition that Mr al Maliki heads. "How can you have a working democracy if the institutions monitoring the government are under government control?
"From this moment onwards, we cannot know if elections will be fair and independent, and if the integrity commission answers to the government, how will it fight the legions of corruption that stand behind that government?"
Mr al Maliki assumed control of a series of independent commissions after a little noticed ruling by the federal supreme court.
In a step that apparently contradicted plainly worded clauses in article 102 of the constitution, specifically safeguarding their independence, the court said the institutions in question should be "attached" to the executive branch of government - Mr al Maliki's cabinet offices - rather than subject to parliamentary oversight, as they had been since 2005.
Major institutions, designed to prevent abuse of power, were affected; the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC), the central bank, the Integrity Commission and the High Commission for Human Rights.
The central bank this week warned that ending its independent status meant Iraq's US$50 billion (Dh183.5bn) in overseas assets were now vulnerable to foreign seizure by creditors. Bank officials also cautioned that international finance organisations, such as the World Bank may as a result cease to offer guarantees related to Iraq's economy.
"I'm afraid of what this means," said Munzer Mohammad Saleh, the central bank's consul. "The central bank has to be an independent institution in Iraq to make sure that national wealth is used for the good of the people, not for the good of the government.
"Undermining that independence means putting the bank under direct control of particular political blocs and interests. I respect the federal court but it needs to be clarified why the central bank should be connected to the cabinet."
Sabah Saadi, an independent MP and former head of Iraq's Integrity Commission, its anti-corruption watchdog, said the country was now "heading towards dictatorship once again". He urged Iraqis to take to the streets unless the government relinquished control of the institutions.
"Of course the integrity commission must be independent," he said. "We do not need to put all the power in one set of hands.
"The Iraqi people should publicly demonstrate against this, if the decision is pushed through. Putting all the powers in one pair of hands will bring us another regime like Saddam Hussein's."
Mr Saadi said the panel of judges in the federal supreme court, headed by Midhat al Mahmoud, had been compromised and should be replaced.
"The federal supreme court is supposed to defend the principle of Iraq's independent institutions and its independent judiciary," he said. "It should be disbanded and a new one formed, we need an independent court."
Mr al Maliki's supporters have denied any wrongdoing, insisting the prime minister has behaved legally and has an obligation to ensure his government is strong in the face of a continued insurgency and economic stagnation.
Ali al Moussawi, a media advisor to the prime minister, said: "There was a flaw and conflict between the work of these independent commissions and the work of the executive authority … the government sought to solve this issue through legal channels."
Political analysts have underlined that Mr al Maliki's lawyers tabled his query with the federal supreme court about the independent commissions on December 2, before he had even put his new cabinet in place, and when the fragile coalition government was at its most vulnerable.
It was, however, not noticed at the time by Iraqiyya, the winner of the March 2010 elections and Mr al Maliki's main political rival, which had reluctantly agreed to join a national unity government on promises that the prime minister would share power with it
Maysoon al Damlouji, a leading Iraqiyya MP, said the bloc, headed by Ayad Allawi, was now considering its position in the government and could withdraw.
"This is walking all over democracy, it is bypassing it completely," she said. "These are violations against the institutions of state and against the Iraqi people and if it continues we will pull out of the political process.
"It's not the partnership and reconciliation we were promised, it's someone trying to form a new dictatorship in Iraq."
Phil Sands contributed to this report from Damascus