* Central bank among institutions affected
* Critics denounce ‘coup against constitution’
* Government says bodies were hijacked by agendas
By Ahmed Rasheed
BAGHDAD, Jan 23 (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has won a court ruling placing independent bodies like the central bank and the electoral agency under the cabinet, a centralisation of power that critics are calling a “coup”.
Maliki’s government made the request to the supreme court in December before he was reappointed later that month to a second term, and the court ruling in his favour came through last Tuesday, generating little controversy at first.
The independent agencies affected are supposed to be monitored by parliament according to the constitution, hastily drawn up in the chaotic aftermath of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Maliki argued that where the language describing parliament’s monitoring powers over the agencies was ambiguous, the bodies should be attached to the cabinet. The court agreed.
The main agencies affected are the Central Bank of Iraq, the Independent Higher Electoral Commission, anti-corruption watchdog the Integrity Commission and the High Commission for Human Rights.
“The court views that the term ‘monitoring by’ is not clear enough to place these under parliament’s authority, therefore they should be attached to the cabinet,” the ruling said.
The decision alarmed critics who view with suspicion glimpses of authoritarian leanings in some of Maliki’s actions.
The democracy bestowed on Iraq by U.S. administrators after Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein was ousted is fragile and unique in a region accustomed to strongmen and presidents for life. Its future is murky as U.S. forces prepare to withdraw this year.
“We consider the request of Nuri al-Maliki to the court to be a coup against the constitution that puts Iraq’s democracy on the line,” said Haider al-Mulla, a member of parliament and spokesman for the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc.
Iraqiya, led by ex-premier Iyad Allawi, won the most seats in an election last March but was unable to muster the majority needed to form a government. It ended up a junior partner in the new government formed by Maliki, a Shi’ite.
Legal experts and analysts decried the supreme court decision, which a judicial spokesman said could not be appealed.
“Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is seeking more powers to control his government. He wants to have a strong government,” said a prominent lawyer, Tariq Harb.
Amman-based researcher Yahya al-Kubaisy of the Iraqi Center For Strategic Studies called it an “unforgiveable mistake”.
“It’s a clear bid by Maliki to monopolize powers,” he said.
The cabinet groups more than 40 ministerial positions from various political parties, not all allied to Maliki, following torturous horsetrading over nine months to form the government.
Some officials supported the court ruling, saying ambiguity over parliament’s powers of supervision had allowed some of the independent agencies to be hijacked by political interests.
Deputy Central Bank Governor Ahmed al-Buraihi said the decision should have been made a long time back and would not affect the bank’s daily operations.
“Aren’t central bank decisions of importance to the cabinet? Shouldn’t the cabinet care about an institution that manages $60 billion and which manages its overseas funds?” he said.
Maliki media adviser Ali al-Moussawi said the criticism was an attempt to cast the government in a bad light and undermine its efforts to be strong. Maliki has said a strong government is needed to fight a weakened but still deadly insurgency.
“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,” Moussawi said. (Additional reporting by Aseel Kami and Haider Najm; Writing by Michael Christie; Editing by Matthew Jones)