BAGHDAD - Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki yesterday emerged politically intact from a parliament session called over this week's car bombings in the capital and a series of explosions since August that have caused lawmakers to question his handling of the country's security situation.
As Maliki parried with lawmakers for nearly six hours, the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group for insurgents that includes al-Qaeda in Iraq, claimed responsibility for Tuesday's bombing, which killed 127 people.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates also arrived in Baghdad yesterday in an unannounced visit, meeting with Iraqi officials and U.S. military commanders in the aftermath of the attack and the announcement that national elections will be held March 7.
In the hours after Tuesday's explosions, politicians skewered Maliki's government and the performance of security commanders. The prime minister was criticized for having not changed commanders after two bombings in August and October that left more than 250 people dead. Lawmakers insisted on a thorough accounting for all three blasts.
Before his appearance in parliament, Maliki dismissed his Baghdad security commander, a move that the prime minister's supporters had talked about since the attack in October.
Those who attended yesterday's session said Maliki warned that a rise in violence was expected in the run-up to elections.
"As soon as the elections are done, these terrorist attacks will be over," said lawmaker Haidar Abadi, a member of Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party.
Maliki took lawmakers to task, saying they had failed to work for the common interest on security matters such as approving a new national intelligence chief after the last one left the post in August.
According to lawmakers, Maliki described a contentious environment in which any security decision could be derided for political motivations.
"He said if I arrest [Osama] bin Laden, someone will say he is a good holy warrior," said Samira Mussawi, who is running in the next election on Maliki's slate.
Maliki also urged lawmakers to support the Iraqi army and police, while offering to purge the security forces of those connected to political movements, including his own, Mussawi said.
Interior Minister Jawad Bolani, whose political ambitions have been a source of tension with Maliki, came up for criticism, Abadi said. Some have blamed Bolani's rivalry with Maliki for dulling his ministry's effectiveness. Maliki told lawmakers that if they wanted Bolani removed they should pass a motion of no confidence.
Bolani has refused an invitation from parliament to discuss the attacks, insisting that he will appear only if the session is open to the public. Yesterday, Bolani insisted that he had not received a formal request and delighted in watching a graduation ceremony for Iraqi police. Asked whether he would resign if the government demanded it, Bolani fell silent and then laughed.
"We implemented all the [country's] security gains without the resignation of any officers, minister or the prime minister," Bolani said later. "Let the political arena of Iraq be based on programs, not political disputes that may hurt everybody, set us back and abolish all of our accomplishments."
The senior U.S. military commander for training Iraqi security forces also warned against massive dismissals of security commanders after the recent attacks.
"Wholesale changing of commanders is not what we need right now," Army Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero said.
Iraq announced plans yesterday to move members of an Iranian opposition group, the People's Mujahedeen Organization of Iran, to a former desert detention camp.
The group strongly denounced the plans as "unlawful and disgraceful" and said they were part of efforts to force its members to leave Iraq.
About 3,500 members of the group - which was hosted in Iraq for years by Saddam Hussein - have been under watch at Camp Ashraf in northeastern Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Iraqi authorities have increasingly taken a hard line toward the camp, including a raid by security forces in July in which 11 people reportedly were killed.
The Iraqi plan calls for moving the exiles from Camp Ashraf to a remote desert outpost that was used for decades for prisoners, including political opponents banished by Hussein.
The group would first be housed in Baghdad before eventual transfer to the site, Neqrat al-Salman, about 200 miles west of the southern city of Basra.
The transfer could begin as early as Tuesday, when Iraqi officials have invited media to visit Camp Ashraf.
- Associated Press