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Iraq Transition

Shadowy Iraq office accused of sectarian agenda

Story Highlights

• Powerful advisers are accused of having an extreme Shiite bias
• U.S. military, intelligence sources: Office could undermine entire U.S. effort
Iraqi defense minister says the Office is a consultation office and "nothing else"
• Senior Iraqi army officer says: "It's people with no power who want to have power"
By Arwa Damon
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Iraq's prime minister has created an entity within his government that U.S. and Iraqi military officials say is being used as a smokescreen to hide an extreme Shiite agenda that is worsening the country's sectarian divide.

The Office of the Commander in Chief has the power to overrule other government ministries, according to U.S. military and intelligence sources.

Those sources say the 24-member office is abusing its power, increasingly overriding decisions made by the Iraqi Ministries of Defense and Interior and potentially undermining the entire U.S. effort in Iraq.

In a joint news conference, Iraq's ministers of interior and defense vigorously denied allegations the Office, as it is known in Baghdad, is run to achieve sectarian goals.

"It is a consultation office and coordination, nothing else," said Defense Minister Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi.

The Office was set up about four months ago with the knowledge of American forces in Iraq. Its goal is ostensibly to advise Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki -- the nation's new commander in chief -- on military matters.

According to a U.S. intelligence source, the Office is "ensuring the emplacement of commanders it favors and can control, regardless of what the ministries want."

Ali Dabbagh, spokesman for the Iraqi government, would not respond directly to questions about what authority the Office exercises within the Iraqi government. He denied allegations that the prime minister's advisers were trying to push a Shiite agenda.

However, a senior Iraqi army officer disagreed. The officer, who is seeking help from the senior U.S. command, said: "The Office is not supposed to be taking charge like this. It's overstepping its role as an advisory office. It's not a healthy thing to have. It's people with no power who want to have power."

A senior U.S. military official cited several cases in Baghdad in which Iraqi commanders considered capable by the United States were detained or forced out of their positions after cracking down on Shiite militias.

Among the cases, an Iraqi colonel in Baghdad, who had made strides in controlling the Shiite Mehdi militia, was removed from his job, the U.S. military official said.

The official also cited the case of an Iraqi National Police commander who was detained and then fired after ordering his men to crack down on Shiite militiamen. The same source said the Office is working to reinstate Iraqi officers the United States had successfully removed because the officers were frequently casting a blind eye to violence carried out by Shiite militiamen.

Every senior U.S. and Iraqi military official who spoke to CNN in Baghdad about the advisers asked not to be named due to the sensitive nature of the story and potential political or personal backlash.

Al-Obeidi insisted the Office was not overstepping its boundaries.

"Now to say that there is an interference with the affairs of the Interior Ministry, or that it has a role in the process of transferring, firing, replacing or imprisoning, this doesn't exist at all," he said. "I challenge anyone who confronts me with such a fact."

A White House official confirmed that the U.S. government does have specific concerns about the Office, adding: "We are working with them on their command-and-control issues to make sure it works properly and so that commanders are put into their jobs for the right reasons and not just sectarian reasons."

White House spokesman Tony Snow on Monday said the administration was "concerned" about stories that the Iraqi government was trying to execute the Baghdad security plan along sectarian lines.

"It is vital for the success of an Iraqi democracy to have security forces that will enforce the law fairly, regardless of who you are or regardless of what group you belong to," Snow said.

U.S. hopes for partnership

As is often the case in Iraq, the whole truth can be hard to find, and the details about exactly what happens behind the closed doors of the Office remain unclear, even to many in the U.S. military.

One senior U.S. commander in Iraq said that the U.S. military generally "doesn't know" what is happening in the Office but added: "Rather than sit back and criticize, we can partner with them. And that is currently being efforted."

But building that partnership, the U.S. military and intelligence sources say, is a challenge.

Bassima al-Jaidri, an adviser in the Office, was described by a senior U.S. military official as "a rabid advocate" with a Shiite agenda who uses her position to intimidate members of Iraq's security forces.

She was described by another as a "feared force" within the outfit who has the ability to influence the dismissal and investigation of senior Iraqi commanders.

Despite repeated efforts, CNN was unable to reach al-Jaidri for comment.

Hassan Sneid, a member of the Iraqi Parliament and adviser to al-Maliki, downplayed al-Jaidri's influence, saying she doesn't have any authority.

"The prime minister is the main man responsible for security in Iraq," Sneid said. He added that the prime minister has targeted Sunnis and Shiites alike and even investigated people within the Office of the Commander in Chief.

Dabbagh said that a number of Iraqi commanders, including good commanders, had been relieved of duty because they had reached retirement age and that this had been voted on by the Council of Ministers. The decision to remove them was to create positions for younger commanders and potentially for some ex-Baathist commanders that the Iraqi government was trying to bring into the Iraqi Security Forces, he said.

The senior Iraqi army officer told CNN that the presence of the Americans was preventing the actions of the Office from being devastating, but he worried about what would happen when U.S. forces ultimately leave Iraq. At that point, the officer says, there will be no restraint on the activities of the Office.

CNN White House Correspondent Ed Henry and CNN Baghdad Producer Jomana Karadsheh contributed to this story.

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