BAGHDAD - Reports of brutality and torture of fellow Iraqis at the hands of government forces threw the country's political scene into turmoil Saturday with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki attacking the leak as an attempt to malign him, and his rivals citing the documents as proof that he is unfit to lead.
The trove of nearly 400,000 WikiLeaks papers includes U.S. military reports of alleged abuse by Iraqi security forces - some of which happened after Maliki became prime minister in May 2006. They were released as Maliki scrambles to keep his job, nearly seven months after national elections failed to produce a clear winner.
The accusations of abuse of what were likely mostly Sunni detainees at the hands of the mostly Shiite Iraqi security forces have reignited Sunni fears of another four years under Maliki, who was known as a Shiite hard-liner before he became prime minister.
Maliki has more recently tried to portray himself as a national leader above sectarian divisions, but the WikiLeaks reports threaten to once again rip open the country's Sunni-Shiite divide.
In a statement, the prime minister's office accused WikiLeaks of creating a national uproar by releasing documents that it said were being used "against national parties and leaders, especially against the prime minister."
"The timing of these documents is designed to create a media turmoil aiming to hurt Iraq and the Iraqi prime minister," said Ali al-Moussawi, an adviser to the prime minister. "It is similar to other widespread campaigns for well-known political intentions, because of the honest work of the government."
The statement from Maliki's office said the documents did not present any proof of detainees being improperly treated while Maliki has headed Iraq's Shiite-led government. Instead, it praised him as courageous for taking a tough stance against terrorists, and sought to turn the spotlight on the United States.
But the role of Iraqi security forces in repeated abuses was quickly seized upon by Maliki's political opponents as proof that the prime minister should go.
A spokeswoman for the Sunni-backed Iraqiya political alliance that won the most seats in the March national election said the WikiLeaks documents show why it's important to have a power-sharing system of government.
"Putting all the security powers in the hands of one person who is the general commander of the armed forces has led to these abuses and torture practices in Iraqi prisons," Iraqiya spokeswoman Maysoun al-Damlouji said in an interview Saturday. "Maliki wants to have all powers in his hands."
Iraqi political blocs were to meet this week to discuss the formation of a government, Iraqiya lawmaker Nahida al-Dayni said. But she warned that the documents would have a negative effect on putting a government together.
Most of the victims of abuse at the hands of Iraqi security were believed to be Sunnis. In March, Sunnis turned out in droves to vote for the secular Iraqiya bloc led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who is a Shiite.
The Sunni push gave Iraqiya a narrow two-seat win over Maliki's State of Law bloc, but Iraqiya still fell far short of capturing enough support to control parliament and oust him. The close vote touched off a scramble as the sides seek enough backing from other parties to secure a majority in the 325-seat parliament.
Until the WikiLeaks papers surfaced Friday, Maliki appeared closest to garnering the 163 seats needed for a majority.