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.
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.
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.
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.
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."