BAGHDAD — Rebuffing a plea by the Obama administration, Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki signaled Wednesday that he's ready to gradually drop his key partner party, the largely Sunni Iraqiya bloc, and move toward a government run by the country's Shiite majority at the expense of minority Sunnis and Kurds.
At a news conference where he repeatedly emphasized his own powers under the Iraqi constitution and berated his coalition partners, Maliki seemed unconcerned if some Iraqiya members quit the broad coalition, and he spoke at length about the options available to him if they did.
Maliki all but ignored Vice President Joe Biden's expression of U.S. support for an "inclusive partnership government," referring to the broad coalition between Maliki's State of Law bloc and Iraqiya, headed by veteran politician Ayad Allawi.
Biden telephoned Maliki on Tuesday in the midst of a political crisis that erupted over allegations that bodyguards in the employ of Maliki's Sunni vice president, Tareq al Hashemi, had been running assassination squads against public figures.
Maliki also seemed to brush aside Biden's emphasis in the phone call on "the importance of acting in a manner consistent with the rule of law and Iraq's constitution."
Maliki told reporters that justice should take its course against Hashemi, and he said he would not allow the case to be politicized. Nevertheless, he described this as "a very simple case, a criminal case with confessions available," and demanded that Hashemi go before a court and declare his innocence.
He even compared the trial of Hashemi to that of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein. "We provided a fair and clean trial to Saddam, the dictator of Iraq, and we will ensure and be determined to provide a fair trial to Mr. Tareq al Hashemi," he said.
It was the latest turn in the transformation of what might have been simply a judicial process into a trial-by-television. After a panel of judges issued an arrest warrant for Hashemi on Monday, the government aired videotaped "confessions" of arrested members of his security detail implicating Hashemi.
One day later, and in seeming defiance of the arrest warrant, Hashemi held a news conference in Erbil in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region. His whereabouts were unknown Wednesday, but Maliki, in response to a reporter's question, appealed to the regional government to "hand over" this "wanted man."
Maliki warned that not doing so or allowing him to escape "would cause problems."
Several leading political figures said Maliki could have forged a consensus for dealing with the Hashemi case by calling together all the country's political leaders, presenting them with the evidence, in secret, and seeking their advice.
Instead he decided to go it alone, a decision that immediately took on a sectarian tinge in a country still recovering from a devastating conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Maliki seemed to take the possible breakup of the current power-sharing arrangement in stride, and he spoke instead of a "new stage" in Iraq.
The Iraqiya bloc boycotted the final session of parliament and announced it was withdrawing ministers from the government as well. But Maliki said that if Iraqiya members did not attend cabinet meetings, he would replace them.
"The former stage required agreements, where we're the pretty face of a (sectarian) quota system," he said, but "in the current stage we are living ... this is a policy which is gone."
One leading expert on Iraqi politics said Maliki was emphasizing his own freedom of action in the wake of the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Reidar Visser, a Norwegian scholar who runs the website www.historiae.org, said Maliki seemed willing to move now toward a "sectarian alliance of mostly Shiites."
In his prepared remarks, Maliki repeatedly referred to the Iraqi constitution as being the only guide to the organization of government, and at one point he called it the country's "supreme holy document." In so doing, he effectively was repudiating the extra-constitutional deal, supported by the United States at the time, which made him prime minister, even though Allawi won more seats in parliament, Visser said.
"Maliki ... is saying that much of the so-called Erbil agreement about power-sharing is not really in the constitution," Visser said. "He is glad the others gave him the premiership in return for certain promises about power-sharing, and having been granted the premiership, he now intends to ignore what was stipulated about power-sharing at Erbil. Instead he will follow the constitution only."
Visser said he doubted that Maliki would resign as prime minister, which would put the initiative in the hands of President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, but instead would let the current power-sharing arrangement evolve into a majority government.
"I think how this may work in practice is that he will marginalize Iraqiya and appoint acting ministers if they fail to show up at cabinet meetings," Visser said. "Parliament may become irrelevant or, if Iraqiya withdraws, dominated entirely by the Shiite alliance. Maliki also will rely on a judiciary that is increasingly susceptible to his demands."
Maliki also disclosed that he had reached an agreement with the United Nations under which he'd allow Iranian dissidents who've been living in Iraq since the 1980s to stay beyond his own deadline of Dec. 31. He said the condition was that they move to the former Camp Liberty, which had been a U.S. base at Baghdad's international airport, and that the U.N. move about 800 out of Iraq before the end of the year. U.N. officials said the Mujahidin E Khalq, or MEK, had not yet agreed, and it wasn't clear what will happen if no deal is reached.
(Lesley Clark in Washington and special correspondent Sahar Issa in Baghdad contributed.)