New documents detailing alleged prisoner abuse by Iraqi security officials prompted fresh doubts Saturday about Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's bid to remain in power for a second term.
The trove of nearly 400,000 WikiLeaks papers detail U.S. military reports of alleged abuse by Iraqi security forces -- some of which happened after al-Maliki became prime minister in May 2006. They were released as al-Maliki scrambles to keep his job, nearly seven months after national elections failed to produce a clear winner.
In a statement, al-Maliki's office lashed out at WikiLeaks, accusing it of creating a national uproar by releasing documents that it said were being used "against national parties and leaders, especially against the prime minister."
Al-Maliki's office questioned the timing of the release, but expressed confidence in "our peoples' awareness regarding such games or media bubbles that are motivated by known political goals."
The statement said the documents did not present any proof of detainees being improperly treated while al-Maliki has headed Iraq's Shiite-led government. Instead, it praised him as courageous for taking a tough stance against terrorists. It did not offer any details.
Cases of prisoner abuse were also widely reported in Iraq before al-Maliki took the top job.
Al-Maliki's political opponents quickly seized on the documents to highlight their long-standing concerns about a possible second al-Maliki term as prime minister.
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 in Iraq.
"Putting all the security powers in the hands of one person who is the general commander of the armed forces have led to these abuses and torture practices in Iraqi prisons," Iraqiya spokeswoman Maysoun al-Damlouji said in an interview Saturday.
"Al-Maliki wants to have all powers in his hands," she said.
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 Shiite.
The Sunni push gave Iraqiya a narrow two-seat win over al-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 support from other parties to secure a majority in the 325-seat parliament.
Until the WikiLeaks papers surfaced Friday, al-Maliki appeared closest to garnering the 163 seats needed for a majority, with the backing of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who lives in self-imposed exile in Iran.
The leaked documents include hundreds of reports from across Iraq with allegations of abuse. In a typical case from August 2006, filed by the 101st Airborne Division, U.S. forces discovered a murder suspect who claimed that Iraqi police hung him from the ceiling by handcuffs, tortured him with boiling water and beat him with rods.
A "serious incident report" filed in December 2009 in Tal Afar said U.S. forces had obtained footage of about a dozen Iraqi army soldiers -- including a major -- executing a detainee. The video showed the bound prisoner being pushed into the street and shot, the Americans said. There was no indication of what happened to the video, or to the Iraqi major or his soldiers. The incident is marked "closed."
Iraq's government has long faced accusations of prisoner abuse, including as recently as this spring.
Hadi Jalo, a political analyst at Baghdad University, said the timing of the WikiLeaks release is likely more damaging to al-Maliki's hopes of winning a second term in office than the revelations of abuse themselves.
"The information of abuses and executions in Iraqi prisons is not new and Iraqis know of torture practices," Jalo said. "The WikiLeaks releases might force al-Maliki into making more political concessions in his bid to stay in power."
Although Iraqis are not surprised by the new abuse allegations, they nevertheless said the documents cast even greater doubt on the evenhandedness of the nation's security forces.
If true, they "will strongly shake the already weak trust of people with government, police and army troops, and will badly spoil their reputation," said Mohammed Tahsin Ghalib, 46, a college professor from Mosul, a Sunni-dominated city located 225 miles (360 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad.
Some Iraqis went a step farther.
"If this government stays in power, violations will still be committed against Iraqi people," said Salawan Rashid, 49, a grocery store owner in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of the capital.
But Iraqis also placed some blame on the United States, accusing American forces of doing little to stop prisoner abuse that, according to the WikiLeaks documents, they knew was happening.
Abdul Nasir Ahmed, a pharmacy owner in a Sunni-dominated area in north Baghdad, said Iraqi forces learned from Americans "how to kick the door of a house open and assault family members while they are sleeping."
Speaking to an audience of Iraqis on Saturday, U.S. Ambassador James F. Jeffrey said the newly released documents are being carefully studied, and said some of the allegations they include "may or may not be a hundred percent correct."
"We are very troubled by any claim of any action undertaken -- first of all by our own forces, or by our allies and partners, the Iraqi forces," Jeffrey said.
Al-Maliki's office said in its statement that the government also would review the documents' authenticity. It said the review will determine whether a criminal investigation of the abuses should be launched, "or whether they are part of the political feuds that do not serve the interests of Iraq and the Iraqis."
Yacoub reported from Amman, Jordan.