At 11 a.m. one day in May, eight Iraqi army Humvees barreled into government headquarters of fractious Diyala province, clouds of dust billowing behind them. They had orders to arrest a council member who belonged to a party that had run afoul of Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's increasingly assertive prime minister.
Shouts rang out as the man's colleagues heckled the captain who served the warrant. The council chairman frantically called lawmakers in Baghdad and pleaded with the provincial security chief to intervene. Desperate, he then ran after the captain as he led the council member, Abdel-Jabbar Ibrahim, to the waiting Humvee.
The captain promised to return Ibrahim in an hour, no more than two. Chosen in the January elections to represent the province, he has remained in custody since May 18.
"This is a message," said Amr al-Taqi, a colleague of Ibrahim's on the council.
Although Iraq's parliamentary elections are not until January, the campaign has begun, and Maliki has shown a determination to fight with a tenacity and ruthlessness borrowed from the handbook of Iraq's last strongman, Saddam Hussein. From Diyala, where men under Maliki's command have arrested and threatened to detain a host of his rivals, to Basra, where security forces have swept up scores of his opponents since January, the message is: cooperate or risk his wrath.
Although Iraq's sectarian war has largely ended, and the Sunnis feel they lost, another struggle for power, perhaps no less perilous, has begun in earnest. Maliki has resorted to a more traditional notion of politics in which violence is simply another form of leverage. His goal is simple -- to ensure he emerges as prime minister again after the vote.
To allies, he is what Iraq needs, a proponent of law in a state still without order.
"Is Maliki a strongman, personally and through the constitution? Or is he a dictator?" asked Sami al-Askari, an aide to the prime minister. The former, he answered. "Maliki has a strong personality. The constitution gives him great powers, but if he was not a strongman, he would not have done what the constitution allows him to do."
Opponents, some of whom decry the arrests as "a systematic campaign," warned that the strife unleashed by the jockeying could soon spiral beyond control.
"These political tensions are undermining the security of the country, and I'm worried about it," said Barham Salih, the deputy prime minister and a Kurdish leader.
The instruments of power
Maliki's ascent has become a familiar narrative in Iraq. In 2006, a reputation for weakness helped secure him the post. Opponents deemed him malleable. Since then, buoyed in part by his success in the provincial elections, he has concentrated power in the hands of what critics call "the impenetrable circle" and taken command of military units that delivered him and his Dawa party what they had lacked since 2003: men with guns.
But the narrative still tells only part of the story of how complicated Iraq is these days. Everyone seems to be looking for an angle, in pursuit of the coalition they think can triumph in the January elections. Everyone has a grievance, no less pronounced.
Maliki's Shiite rivals -- followers of the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq -- have fought for primacy in the southern province of Qadisiyah. Another group, known as Sahwa or Awakening, filled by former Sunni fighters and long backed by the U.S. military, is hopelessly divided. Maliki has cracked down on some of its leaders, especially in Baghdad.
Others in Anbar, Salahuddin and even Diyala provinces profess loyalty to Maliki, wagering he will eventually come out on top. Another Shiite faction outmaneuvered Maliki's party in Diyala in negotiations over leadership positions there. But there remains a sense that Maliki wields the initiative, now more than ever, as he tries to hone a mix of patronage and coercion, a proven combination here.
"Whoever controls the instruments of power can keep himself in power," said Jawad al-Hasnawi, a leader of the Sadr movement in the sacred Shiite city of Karbala.
Diyala, a fertile land of citrus and dates, watered by the Diyala River and stretching to the Iranian border, remains a battleground, with its Sunni majority and Kurdish and Shiite minorities. In the elections in January, Sunni candidates allied with the Iraqi Islamic Party, a foe of Maliki, took the greatest number of seats in a province where Sunnis had been disenfranchised after largely boycotting the vote in 2005.
An Iraqi official said Maliki had ordered the arrests of at least six of the party's candidates a week before the January elections. The official said he was stopped only after Gen. Ray Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, personally intervened. American and Iraqi officials said warrants were again issued after the vote, in which the Islamic Party won nearly a third of the seats, prompting another intervention by U.S. officials.
A spokesman for Odierno declined to comment on the report. "It would be categorically inappropriate to discuss private conversations between Gen. Odierno and the Prime Minister," Col. James Hutton said in an e-mailed response to questions.
Ibrahim's arrest was not the first. In November, Hussein al-Zubaidi, a former council member from the same party, was arrested. He is still in custody.
Provincial officials said Ibrahim was detained by the Baghdad Brigade, which, along with the Counter-Terrorism Task Force, reported directly to Maliki. (After an outcry in parliament, the Baghdad Brigade has at least formally returned under the purview of the Defense Ministry.)
"Why the Baghdad Brigade? This is my question," said Taqi, the council member.
Officials with Maliki's Dawa party in Baqubah and Baghdad defended the arrest as legitimate. Indeed, some of them describe the Islamic Party as only a step removed from the insurgency. Askari, Maliki's aide, said Ibrahim's name had surfaced during interrogations of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the reputed leader of the group al-Qaeda in Iraq whom officials said they arrested in April. Baghdadi's arrest has been met with skepticism, as has his true identity.
The Islamic Party seems an implacable foe of Maliki, leading a campaign against government corruption that may prove Maliki's greatest vulnerability in the election. The position of the Sadr movement, though, is more ambiguous. It helped secure Maliki's election as prime minister but was a victim of a crackdown he launched in Baghdad and Basra, and now complains he is trying to browbeat it into a new alliance on his terms.
Sadr officials say scores of their followers have been arrested in southern provinces as a way to pressure them.
"Maliki has given them the green light to do it," said Salah al-Obaidi, a Sadr spokesman in Najaf, another sacred Shiite city. "He has always wanted to use our movement for his benefit and the benefit of his government."
'A new equation'
Basra, once beholden to militias, is a compelling illustration of the shifting struggle in Iraq. Iraqi forces, with the decisive assistance of U.S. troops, restored a semblance of order last year. In the provincial elections, Maliki's party won a majority of seats. Since then, Sadr's followers complain, they have endured a wave of arrests they deem political.
Naseer al-Musawi, the head of the Sadr office there, put the number of arrests at 70. Others who were released have complained of torture.
Aqeel al-Musawi, a security adviser to the governor in Basra, denied there was any crackdown. "Outlaws," he called those arrested. The rest, he said, were remnants of the militias. But as the Sadr official noted, "You can arrest anyone and call them a militiaman."
The creation of the coalitions that will stand in the election is still thought to be months away. Even now, though, virtually every party, faction and personality is involved in some level of negotiation, and officials with Maliki's party speak with confidence, deemed arrogance by their opponents, about their ability to forge the most inclusive one.
They believe they can reconstitute the Shiite alliance that competed in the 2005 elections, but draw in elements of Sahwa and other Sunni factions in northern Iraq as well. Notable is whom they omit: the Iraqi Islamic Party and the leading Kurdish parties.
"There's a new equation of power," said Fayad al-Shamari, the head of the provincial council in Najaf who was elected as part of Maliki's list.
Others put it more bluntly. "I will not be surprised at all if there is a lot of brinkmanship to bring people back into the tent," an Iraqi official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity so as not to cross the prime minister. "Politics is getting rough."
Correspondent Nada Bakri and special correspondent Qais Mizher contributed to this report.