BAGHDAD // A bitter row over Iraq's election watchdog has strained the ruling coalition government of the prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, underlining an acrimonious struggle to control the country.
In the aftermath of a parliamentary vote last week over dissolving the Independent High Electoral Commission (Ihec), critics and supporters of Mr Al Maliki have rounded on each other with allegations of deceit, corruption and sectarianism.
The argument centres on a proposal by the State of Law alliance, the group headed by the prime minister, to pass a vote of no confidence in Ihec over fraud claims. If approved, the measure would have effectively sacked the United Nations supported watchdog - the body in charge of ensuring fair and transparent elections in the country.
In the run up to the vote, which took place last week, various blocs from across the political spectrum had indicated they would support the motion.
Most of Iraq's politicians have quarrelled with Ihec at one time or another and, following last year's national elections, both Mr Al Maliki and Iraqiyya, his principal rivals, levelled charges of malfeasance against the watchdog, each accusing it of illegally favouring their opponent.
A backroom deal over sacking Ihec officials appeared to have been struck in advance of the vote, resulting in confident predictions that a majority of MPs would support the move. The motion failed, however, with the support of only 94 of the 245 politicians.
That outcome was widely seen as a personal blow to Mr Al Maliki and a signal that parliament, including members of the prime minister's own ruling National Alliance, are worried about an increasing concentration of power in his hands.
"We made a broad agreement, there was a deal on the vote of no confidence but Al Maliki was not committed to it," said Baha Al Araji, a leading MP from the Sadrist movement, which voted against the no-confidence motion. So too did other National Alliance members, including the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and Fadila.
The Sadrists played a central role in securing a second four-year term as premier for Mr Al Maliki. But their alliance, always uneasy, has shown increasing signs of strain.
According to Mr Al Araji, the agreed plan had been for a vote of no confidence in Ihec, on condition watchdog officials continued to function in a caretaker capacity until new senior level staff could be appointed to take over.
Those interim arrangements were intended, he said, to prevent the possibility that, once dismissed, Ihec would be shelved or get stuck in one of Iraq's innumerable political logjams, leaving future elections without even nominally independent oversight.
"We were very surprised to find out on the day of the vote that Al Maliki wanted to sack the commission with immediate effect," Mr Al Araji said. "We had never agreed to that, it made us suspicious, we would still like an explanation as to why the terms of the deal were changed in that way."
Those suspicious were widely shared, with politicians, analysts and ordinary voters in Baghdad believing Mr Al Maliki was attempting to dismantle a potential obstacle to his bloc winning future elections.
Since securing a second term as prime minister in December, Mr Al Maliki has drawn heavy criticism for retaining personal control of key ministerial posts, including those relating to security and defence. And he has taken legal action to end Ihec's constitutionally guaranteed independent status in order to bring it under the direct control of his offices.
Despite that, Ihec appointees, drawn from a range of backgrounds, are not considered Al Maliki loyalists. In sacking them, analysts said, the prime minister would have been in a position to ensure his supporters filled key watchdog posts.
"Al Maliki is trying to control Ihec in his own interests, not in the interests of Iraq," said Zamil Lami, a Baghdad resident who voted for Mr Al Maliki in the March 2010 ballot. "I regret supporting him in the last elections, I thought he was a nationalist figure who would fight corruption, not try to do things like this."
Hamed Al Mutlak, an Iraqiyya MP, accepted corruption was a problem within Ihec but said sacking the watchdog was not the way to address it.
"Allegations of corruption need to be fully investigated and those involved need to be identified and prosecuted," he said. "You do not clean Ihec up by wiping away the whole organisation and having nothing to take its place."
Mr Al Mutlak said "sectarian party political considerations" underpinned the tabling of the no confidence vote.
Although he declined to elaborate, Iraqiyya members often accuse Mr Al Maliki of running a narrow pro-Shiite agenda designed to sideline Iraq's Sunni community.
"I'm sorry to say certain groups want to concentrate all power in their hands," he said.
"For that reason, we cannot gamble with Ihec because that would mean gambling with the future of the country and would put us on the path to another dictatorship."
State of Law MPs dismissed the claims against them and, instead, accused those of voting against the no confidence motion of trying to cover up corrupt election practices.
"Our allies pulled out of the vote of no confidence, they betrayed the terms," said Batoul Farouk, an MP from Mr Al Maliki's bloc.
"The prime minister discovered serious corruption inside Ihec so we are surprised to see some political groups pull out of the deal that would have tackled it."