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updated 10/23/2010 10:47:40 PM ET 2010-10-24T02:47:40

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 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 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.

The accusations of abuse of what were likely mostly Sunni detainees at the hands of the mostly Shiite Iraqi security forces has reignited Sunni fears of another four years under al-Maliki, who was known as a Shiite hard-liner before he became prime minister. Al-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.

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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."

Al-Maliki's supporters questioned the timing of the release.

"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 al-Maliki's office 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, and sought to turn the spotlight on the U.S.

But the role of Iraqi security forces in repeated abuses was quickly seized upon by al-Maliki's political opponents as proof that the prime minister should go.

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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."

Iraqi political blocs were to meet next week to discuss the formation of a new government, said Iraqiya lawmaker Nahida al-Dayni. But she warned that the documents would have a negative effect on the 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 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 the backing of 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.

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Al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia often terrorized Sunni neighborhoods and attacked American forces.

Whether or not the documents will seriously damage al-Maliki's political standing — especially in a country so inured to violence — remains to be seen. Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish politician, said Iraqis have already seen many similar accusations come and go.

"The people who support al-Maliki will be more supportive. The people against him will be more against him," he said. He said groups such as the Kurds, whose backing is considered key to the formation of any new government, are more concerned about issues important to their constituencies than the new abuse claims.

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.

But he said the prime minister may try to portray the released documents as a conspiracy against him and paint the people involved in the alleged torture as belonging to rival parties. Also, al-Maliki's followers could try to say that his government needed to be tough on al-Qaida or al-Sadr's militias, Jalo said.

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 December 2009 report from Tal Afar described how U.S. forces obtained footage of about a dozen Iraqi army soldiers executing a detainee. The video showed the bound prisoner being pushed into the street and shot, the Americans said.

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Iraqis were not surprised by the new abuse allegations, but nevertheless said the documents cast greater doubt on the nation's security forces. For many Sunnis, the reports heightened fears of another four years under a Shiite-dominated government.

"Violations continued to take place ... on a sectarian basis because most of the detainees are Sunnis and the men responsible in prisons are from the Shiite-dominated government," said Khamees Ahmed, 43, from western city of Fallujah in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province.

U.S. Ambassador James F. Jeffrey said the documents are being carefully studied, and said some of the allegations they include "may or may not be a hundred percent correct."

Al-Maliki's office said the government also would review the documents' authenticity. It said the review will determine whether to launch a criminal investigation of the abuses, "or whether they are part of the political feuds that do not serve the interests of Iraq and the Iraqis."

Video: Leaked reports reveal Iraq’s stunning civilian toll

  1. Transcript of: Leaked reports reveal Iraq’s stunning civilian toll

    JIM MIKLASZEWSKI reporting: the WikiLeaks release of these military secrets, nearly 400,000 raw battlefield reports from US commanders on the front lines in Iraq . And while much of this has been pretty much reported to some extent, the massive leaks provides an even deeper look into the -- into the darkest side of the Iraq war . The leaked documents cover the deadliest years of the Iraq war and for the first time provide evidence that Iraqi civilians suffered the heaviest losses. The secret records show in all 109,000 Iraqis were killed. But more than half, 66,000, were civilians, higher than previously disclosed. At a news conferences today in London , WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange accused the US of hiding the truth.

    Mr. JULIAN ASSANGE: Iraq , as we can see, was a bloodbath on every corner.

    MIKLASZEWSKI: According to the documents, many died at the hands of the Americans. Six hundred eighty-one civilians were killed at US military checkpoints alone. Pentagon officials insist, however, US military tactics have improved.

    Mr. GEOFF MORRELL (Pentagon Press Secretary): We have gotten better over the years at protecting ourselves while at the same time protecting innocent civilians approaching checkpoints, but we have not been perfect.

    MIKLASZEWSKI: It was also revealed the US military knew that Iraqi security forces tortured and murdered detainees. American forces were ordered not to intervene, but only to report it up the chain of command. One document states an American soldier watched an Iraqi officer strike a detainee with a baton and whip another detainee's feet and back with an electrical cable. The soldier reported the incident, but the document shows there was no investigation.

    Source: New York Times

    MIKLASZEWSKI: Americans also obtained a video showing Iraqi soldiers and an officer executing a detainee. That incident was also reported, but nine days later the case was closed.

    Source: The Guardian

    Mr. JOHN SLOBODA (Iraq Body Count): It is very good that this data has been collected. But it is wrong and unjustifiable that it has been kept a secret for so long.

    MIKLASZEWSKI: Perhaps more troubling in the long run, the secret documents show that Iran exerted more influence and had a bigger role in fomenting violence in Iraq than first thought, and is still flexing significant muscle in Iraq today.

    Mr. ROGER CRESSEY (NBC News Terrorism Analyst): The real irony here is that although the United States has overthrown Saddam Hussein and stabilized Iraq to a certain degree, Iranian influence has never been higher inside Iraq .

    MIKLASZEWSKI: WikiLeaks claims they've released the stolen documents in the name of truth.

    Mr. SLOBODA: There is a public right to know.

    MIKLASZEWSKI: But US officials fear the details of US military tactics contained in the documents will give the enemy a newfound advantage on the battlefield.

    Mr. MORRELL: They're looking for vulnerabilities, trying to exploit them in future attacks. That's why these documents are so dangerous to our forces.

    MIKLASZEWSKI: In addition, a document about those three American hikers taken into custody by Iran indicates the three were clearly in Iraq when grabbed. But it goes on to say the trio was warned in advance about traveling to that area and they seemed intent on creating agitation and publicity. As for the overall leak, Pentagon and military officials don't expect any major fallout from these latest disclosures, but it's not over yet. WikiLeaks announced today it intends to release another 17,000 documents from the war

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