The story of the sweeping, and secretive, arrests, in Iraq’s national security apparatus is getting curiouser and curiouser. It now appears as if the whole thing was a clumsy effort by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to get rid of political opponents, in advance of January elections.

Iraq’s provincial elections take place 11 days after Barack Obama becomes president next month, and they could present him with his first international crisis. In several key provinces — Nineveh, Baghdad, and Diyala — the ruling alliance may face crushing electoral defeats, and Prime Minister Maliki is apparently trying to preempt that by force. But it’s looking more and more likely that the elections in Iraq will be rigged, and that could touch off violence. The secret arrests are just the tip of the iceberg.

Reported the Post:

Members of parliament charged Thursday that the prime minister was using Iraq’s security forces to instill fear in his rivals ahead of provincial elections set for next month. Critics noted pointedly that a special counterterrorism task force that reports to Maliki made the arrests.

Maliki, whose ruling Dawa party has split and split again — former Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, who was a Dawa member, is now running an opposition party — is doing everything he can to bolster his party’s power before the January 31 vote. Not much of it is democratic. He’s building ties to the army command to make the Iraqi armed forces loyal to him personally. He’s creating thuggish provincial “support councils” around the country as a kind of private militia. And he’s using a special ops force, which reports directly to the prime minister, as a strike force against his enemies and opponents. They’ve been used in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, in an attempt to crush the Sunni-led Awakening movement there. And, it seems, it was this force that Maliki used to arrest two dozen or more supposed plotters in the Interior Ministry and perhaps elsewhere, including the Defense Ministry.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Maliki’s arrests “raised concerns that the government’s crackdown was reminiscent of Hussein’s regime.” It added:

Some legislators compared the government’s behavior to that of Hussein’s regime. Hussein’s security apparatus had often rounded up political opponents on dubious charges. The lawmakers raised concern that the arrests were linked to the Shiite-led government’s efforts to consolidate power.

Some Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish lawmakers have accused Maliki recently of harboring authoritarian ambitions, in a break from the power-sharing model championed by U.S. officials since 2003.

No good explanation for the arrests has been provided by the government, which leaked two days ago that the supposed plotters were planning a coup d’etat and that they were associated with Iraq’s Baath Party, through an organization called The Return (Al Awda). But according to many others, the entire Maliki-led operations was conducted without informing Iraq’s own government, the ministers involved (including the minister of defense), and the parliament. The interior minister, Jawad al-Bolani, who is creating his own political party to compete against the ruling alliance, wasn’t informed, either.

Sunnis were outraged by the secretive arrests, since many of those arrested appear to have been Sunnis. Allies of Muqtada al-Sadr condemned the arrests. And even spokesmen for the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), an Iranian-allied party with a powerful militia, voiced suspicion about the arrests. ISCI controls the Interior Ministry, and ISCI is competing in the election across the Shiite south of Iraq against Maliki’s Dawa.

The New York Times, which broke the story Thursday — but with important details wrong — reported in an update today that there “was no evidence that the suspects were in the early stages of planning a coup” against Maliki. Added the Times:

[An] adviser to Mr. Bolani said that the prime minister had been privately pushing for the arrest of a number of Interior officials for two months, but that Mr. Bolani had pushed back, insisting that the officials were innocent.