November 4, 2006
By JOHN F. BURNS
BAGHDAD, Nov. 3 — The cycle of discord and strained reconciliation that has broken into the open between Iraq’s Shiite-led government and the Bush administration has revealed how wide the gulf has become between what the United States expects from the Baghdad government and what it is able or willing to deliver.
Just in the past 10 days, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has rejected the notion of an American “timeline” for action on urgent Iraqi political issues; ordered American commanders to lift checkpoints they had set up around the Shiite district of Sadr City to hunt for a kidnapped American soldier and a fugitive Shiite death squad leader; blamed the Americans for the deteriorating security situation in Iraq; and demanded speeded-up Iraqi control of its own military.
The estrangement has developed despite the two governments’ mutual dependency. The Maliki government needs the United States for the protection its 150,000 troops afford, and without which, most Iraqi politicians agree, the country would slide into full-blown civil war. For the Americans, success for the government that won a four-year term in January’s elections seems central to any hope for an orderly American disengagement from Iraq.
Without doubt, there has been an element of political grandstanding by Mr. Maliki that reflects his need to rally support among fractious Shiite political partners and the restive masses they represent. With American pressures focusing on the need for political concessions to the minority Sunnis by the majority Shiites — the principal victims of Saddam Hussein’s repression, and, since his overthrow, the main targets for Sunni insurgent bombings — the prime minister cannot afford to be seen to be at America’s beck and call.
Still, the differences between the new Shiite rulers and the Americans are real and growing. And the paradox of their animosity is that the primary beneficiary of the rift is likely to be their common enemy, the Sunni insurgents. Their aim has been to recapture the power the Sunnis lost with Mr. Hussein’s overthrow — and to repeat the experience of the 1920s, when Shiites squandered their last opportunity to wrest power and handed the Sunnis an opening to another 80 years of domination.
The bitterness between the Shiite leaders and the Americans reflects widely divergent views of the government’s responsibilities. The Americans want Mr. Maliki to lead in forging a “national compact,” healing bitter splits between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds over the division of political and economic power.
The timeline that Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador, set out last week — prompting an acerbic protest from Mr. Maliki — foresaw framework agreements over coming months. Central issues include disbanding the militias that have been responsible for a wave of sectarian killing, the future division of oil revenues, and a new approach to the Baathists, who were the bedrock of the Hussein government, that will strike a fairer balance between holding the worst accountable for their crimes and offering others rehabilitation.
But Mr. Maliki is not well cast for the role of national conciliator, and has shown a growing tendency to revert to type as a stalwart of a Shiite religious party, the Islamic Dawa Party, which had thousands of its followers killed under Mr. Hussein.
Like most other current Shiite leaders, Mr. Maliki spent decades in exile, and lost family members in Mr. Hussein’s gulag. By nature, he is withdrawn and, American officials say, lacks the natural ease, and perhaps the will, to reach out to politicians from other communities, especially Sunnis.
The Americans say that a self-reinforcing dynamic is at play, with the growing sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites, responsible for thousands of deaths this year in Baghdad and surrounding areas, causing politicians from both groups to pull back from the vision of a shared life.
Instead, positions have hardened. In the case of Mr. Maliki, who heads what is nominally a “national unity” cabinet, this has meant an increasing tendency to act as the steward of Shiite interests, sometimes so obtrusively that Sunnis, and to a lesser extent Kurds, have accused him of blatant sectarianism.
The issue of greatest concern to the Americans — and to Sunnis — has been Mr. Maliki’s resistance to American pressure for a crackdown on the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia that the Americans say has been in the forefront of death squad attacks on Sunnis. The Shiite cleric who leads the militia, Moktada al-Sadr, controls the largest Shiite bloc in Parliament and backed Mr. Maliki in the contest among Shiite groups to name the new prime minister.
Another Shiite militia, the Badr Organization, is controlled by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, who is both a powerful rival to Mr. Maliki in Shiite religious politics and another mainstay of the government.
So for Mr. Maliki, American demands for action to disband the militias have revealed in their sharpest form the tensions between his role as national leader and as steward of Shiite interests. Compounding his dilemma, public opinion among Shiites, particularly in Sadr City, the Mahdi Army’s main stronghold, has coalesced around the militiamen, who are seen by many as the only effective protection against Sunni insurgents who have killed thousands of Shiites with their bombings of marketplaces, mosques, weddings, funerals and other public gatherings.
The failure of American troops to stop these bombings is a source of anger among Shiites, who have woven conspiracy theories that depict the Americans as silent partners for the Sunnis. And the rancor finds a favorite target in Mr. Khalilzad, who has become a figure of contempt among some senior Shiites in the government for his efforts to draw the Sunnis into the circle of power in Baghdad. It has become common among Shiite officials to say that the envoy harbors an unease toward Shiites engendered by growing up in a Sunni family in Afghanistan that distrusted Hazaras, Shiite descendants of Genghis Khan.
For months, Mr. Maliki has argued against forcible moves to disband the militias, urging a political solution and pointing to cases in which Mr. Sadr himself has approved, or at least not opposed, raids on death squad leaders whom he has described as renegades from the mainforce Mahdi Army. Publicly, the Americans have backed the prime minister; privately, they say the country cannot wait while sectarian killing rages unabated. The result has been an uneasy, and at times volatile, compromise.
American commanders have picked off some of the most brutal Shiite death squad leaders on a raid-by-raid basis, sometimes with Mr. Maliki’s approval, and sometimes, as in the case of a disputed Sadr City raid last week that failed to capture the wanted man, known as Abu Derar, without it. In one case last month, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top American commander in Iraq, intervened to release another alleged Mahdi Army death squad leader captured in a raid in west Baghdad after Mr. Maliki demanded he be freed, apparently to assuage Mr. Sadr.
American dissatisfaction with the Maliki government goes far beyond the ambivalence over the militias. When the government was sworn in on May 20, Mr. Khalilzad and General Casey said it had six months to take a broad range of political actions that would build public support, and make the war winnable. When President Bush made a six-hour visit to Baghdad in June, he said he had looked Mr. Maliki “in the eye” to determine if America had a reliable partner, and reported that he was convinced the new prime minister met the test.
High among American priorities was the need for effective government after a largely wasted year under Mr. Maliki’s predecessor, Ibrahim al-Jaafari. American officials have told reporters in background briefings in recent weeks that little has changed, with the budgets of many government departments, including the Health Ministry, controlled by officials loyal to Mr. Sadr, being used for what the Americans say amounts to wholesale looting.
In the past week, Mr. Maliki has added a new, potentially incendiary grievance against the Americans. In interviews that preceded a placatory teleconference call with President Bush last weekend, he said the poor security situation across Iraq was the Americans’ fault, and demanded a more rapid transfer of command authority over the war. With apparent unconcern for the war’s growing unpopularity in the United States, he demanded more American money for the buildup of Iraq’s own forces, and for reconstruction of the country’s infrastructure, on top of the $38 billion the Bush administration says it has already spent on civil and military aid to Iraq since the toppling of Mr. Hussein in 2003 and the nearly $400 billion for America’s own deployments.
Mr. Bush responded by dispatching his national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, on an urgent trip to Baghdad on Monday, and agreeing to work on ways of accelerating the transfer of authority, especially in regard to the Maliki government’s ability to control the deployment of Iraqi troops.
What the Bush administration’s public comments omitted was any reference to the deep frustration among American commanders at the continuing weakness of many Iraqi Army units, which have been plagued by high levels of indiscipline, absenteeism and desertion. Some American officers say that as many as half of the listed 137,000 Iraqi soldiers are effectively undeployable.
The situation has its keenest effects in Baghdad, where American commanders say the war will ultimately be won or lost. In the stepped-up effort to clear the city of insurgents and death squads, begun in August and acknowledged by American commanders to be faltering, American troops have accounted for two-thirds of the 25,000 deployed, after Iraqi commanders delivered two of the six battalions they promised.
The result, American officers involved in the operation have noted, is that what little security there is in the city — and, ultimately, the survival of the Maliki government itself — relies far more on American than Iraqi troops.