US considers switching puppets in Iraq


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

September 20, 2006

Doubts Increase About Strength of Iraq¹s Premier

BAGHDAD, Sept. 19 ‹ Senior Iraqi and American officials are beginning to 
question whether Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has the political muscle 
and decisiveness to hold Iraq together as it hovers on the edge of a full civil 

Four months into his tenure, Mr. Maliki has failed to take aggressive steps to 
end the country¹s sectarian strife because they would alienate fundamentalist 
Shiite leaders inside his fractious government who have large followings and 
private armies, senior Iraqi politicians and Western officials say. He is also 
constrained by the need to woo militant Sunni Arabs connected to the insurgency.

Patience among Iraqis is wearing thin. Many complain that they have seen no 
improvement in security, the economy or basic services like electricity. Some 
Sunni Arab neighborhoods seem particularly deprived, fueling distrust of the 
Shiite-led government.

Concerns about the toughness of the new government seemed reflected in President
Bush¹s comments when he met Tuesday with Iraq¹s president, Jalal Talabani. Mr. 
Bush said he wanted Iraqis to know ³that the United States of America stands 
with them, so long as the government continues to make the tough choices 
necessary for peace to prevail.²

Mr. Maliki, a conservative Shiite, took office in May. A senior American 
diplomat here said the White House still had confidence in him, mainly because 
³he has articulated goals for Iraq that make sense to us.²

Bush administration officials have repeatedly cautioned that Mr. Maliki needs 
more time. ³This is a national unity government of many, many moving parts,² 
said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. ³He has got to negotiate
as he goes.²

But diplomats who deal with the Bush administration on Iraq issues, and recently
departed officials who stay in contact with their colleagues in the government, 
say the president¹s top advisers have a far more pessimistic view.

³The thing you hear the most is that he never makes any decisions,² said a 
former senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not 
authorized to discuss internal deliberations. ³And that drives Bush crazy. He 
doesn¹t take well to anyone who talks about getting something accomplished and 
then refuses to take the first step.²

American officials here say they do not intend to let Mr. Maliki fail and are 
helping him in a variety of ways. For example, to bolster Iraqis¹ confidence, 
American generals are spending money on quick reconstruction projects like trash
pickup as the military goes through troubled neighborhoods of Baghdad.

The embassy has advisers who work closely with cabinet ministers and has 
deployed hundreds of Americans to seven provinces to help Iraqi officials build 
up the government¹s political and economic strength. A senior envoy said the 
biggest effort was simply ³Diplomacy 101² ‹ insisting to Iraqi leaders that they
resolve their differences.

But increasingly, Iraqi and Western officials say the unity government is one in
name only, with the political parties representing different sects and 
ethnicities constantly at odds, undermining Mr. Maliki¹s ability to build 

While the United States has military might and political influence, it must rely
on the Iraqi government to reach out to the country¹s political and religious 
leaders. Trying to placate everyone has kept Mr. Maliki from being able to offer
amnesty to Sunni insurgents or forcefully disarm Shiite militias, officials say.

The main Shiite bloc itself is deeply divided, depriving the prime minister of 
crucial support. So he relies on Moktada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric who commands
the powerful militia called the Mahdi Army, for political backing. The militia 
has been blamed by many Sunni Arabs for sectarian killings.

To ensure that the minority Sunni Arabs remain involved in the government, Mr. 
Maliki finds himself compromising on issues like cabinet appointments with 
conservative Sunni parties that have occasional contact with nationalist 

³I think he has said good things, but in practice there has been no change,² 
said Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish legislator. ³The security situation 
is deteriorating and violence is getting worse. He has done nothing against 
militias. At the same time, the reconciliation dialogue is not moving forward. 
It doesn¹t look good, the prospects for the government.

³I thought he¹d be stronger, but he looks weak,² Mr. Othman said. ³He feels 
frustrated because nobody¹s cooperating with him.²

The same sentiments are heard in the streets of the capital.

³There¹s no security, no job opportunities, no services, nothing at all,² said 
Muhammad Jabar Abdul Ridha, 18, a construction worker walking through downtown 
Baghdad on Tuesday afternoon. ³This government hasn¹t done anything better than 
the previous one.²

While some officials in Washington say Mr. Bush and Secretary of State 
Condoleezza Rice still insist in staff meetings that Mr. Maliki must be given 
more time and support, there is a growing sense that he is not about to change 
his operating style. A former senior official said the big test would be whether
Mr. Maliki could confront Mr. Sadr. ³If you don¹t do that, I don¹t know how he 
can succeed,² the official said.

The prime minister¹s aides declined repeated requests for an interview with Mr. 
Maliki, who emerged as a compromise choice for prime minister during a power 
struggle last spring in which the White House and Mr. Sadr backed different 

Supporters of Mr. Maliki say it is too soon to judge his tenure. Any unity 
government requires compromises, they argue. ³He¹s been in office only a short 
time, and the size and number of problems from the former regime and former 
cabinets are huge,² said Sheik Khalid al-Attiya, a deputy speaker of Parliament.

Mr. Maliki has made efforts to quell the Sunni-led insurgency, including 
reaching out to some Sunni Arab guerrilla groups, Iraqi officials say. That may 
help widen a rift in the insurgency between Iraqi nationalists and foreign 
fighters. Sheiks in rebellious Anbar Province announced last Sunday that 25 of 
31 tribes in the province were ready to fight against Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.

Iraqi and American officials who have dealt with Mr. Maliki say he is much more 
blunt and expressive in meetings than his predecessor as prime minister, Ibrahim
al-Jaafari, who leads Mr. Maliki¹s political party. Mr. Maliki is not given to 
diplomatic formalities and makes his views known, they say. At the same time, he
likes to listen to a range of opinion ‹ often at the expense of making 
decisions, the officials say.

Mr. Maliki acts as if he is backed into a corner these days, said a moderate 
legislator who recently spent two and a half hours in a private meeting with 

³You were one of the hawks,² the legislator recalled telling Mr. Maliki. ³Now 
you¹re one of the doves.²

³No, I¹m still one of the hawks,² the legislator quoted the prime minister as 
saying. ³I just need time.²

Mr. Maliki¹s security plan for Baghdad, now the American military¹s main effort 
of the war, intentionally avoids direct confrontation with Mr. Sadr¹s militia, 
despite Iraqi Army generals¹ apparent willingness to attack the militia and 
despite growing violence by rogue militia elements. The plan, begun last month 
after an initial failed effort in June, involves military sweeps of violent 
neighborhoods, generally after fighters have already fled.

The murder rate has dropped in some neighborhoods. But the plan¹s effectiveness 
was called into question last week, when more than 165 bodies were found across 
Baghdad in four days. Shiite militiamen are the main suspects. The Baghdad 
morgue has said more than 1,500 civilians were killed in August, a 17 percent 
drop from July but higher than nearly all other months of the war.

Brig. Gen. Dana J. H. Pittard, assigned to help train Iraqi police and army 
units, said Iraqi Army commanders, who usually have fewer sectarian loyalties 
than the police, were ready to take on the militias but had not gotten approval 
from the government.

³There¹s this obvious question that the army guys are asking, about ŒWhen are we
going to get rid of the militias?¹ ² General Pittard said in an interview while 
meeting with American military advisers at a base in Taji. ³If you talk to the 
leaders of the Iraqi Army, they¹ll say, ŒWe need to be given an order to disarm 
the militias.¹ ²

Last month, after American and Iraqi soldiers attacked a militia safe house in 
the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad, the prime minister denounced the action 
and promised compensation to families of Iraqis killed or wounded in the 

Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the second-ranking commander in Iraq, said American
and Iraqi generals were waiting for Mr. Maliki to find a political solution to 
the militias.

³How long will that process take?² he said. ³I don¹t know.²

Mr. Maliki has little obvious leverage over Mr. Sadr, who controls at least 30 
seats in Parliament and six ministries, making him one of the most powerful 
figures in the government. Mr. Sadr has no intention of disbanding the Mahdi 
Army, because it is now part of the government, said Bahaa al-Aaraji, a senior 
legislator allied with him.

³They are just volunteers defending their country,² Mr. Aaraji said.

Mr. Maliki is also tiptoeing around other powerful Shiite leaders with militias.
Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Parliament¹s Shiite bloc, has ignited a 
political firestorm by calling for the legislature to approve a mechanism to 
create autonomous regions. Many are opposed, and the move threatens to splinter 
the government. But rather than rein Mr. Hakim in, Mr. Maliki has kept quiet.

As a centerpiece of his reconciliation project to end the Sunni insurgency, Mr. 
Maliki wants to forge an amnesty policy that would draw into politics some 
militant Sunni Arabs and former officials from Saddam Hussein¹s Baath Party, 
Iraqi politicians say.

But the proposal has been attacked by hard-line Shiites like Mr. Hakim, who is 
opposed to leniency for killers of Iraqis, and American politicians outraged at 
the idea of amnesty for those who have attacked American troops.

That could doom Mr. Maliki¹s plan, said Ayad Jamaladin, a moderate Shiite 
legislator on the government¹s reconciliation committee.

³Innocent people don¹t need amnesty,² he said. ³Guilty people need amnesty.²

Some conservative Sunni leaders are also resisting Mr. Maliki¹s efforts. 
Politicians in Baghdad and tribal sheiks in restive areas insist that he meet a 
long list of demands that includes releasing all detainees and setting a 
timetable for the withdrawal of American troops. Many Sunnis also fear that Mr. 
Maliki is beholden to Iran, and his trip there last week further stirred 

³With whom should we reconcile?² asked Sheik Muhammad Saleh al-Bajari, a 
spokesman for tribes in Falluja, the Sunni Arab stronghold. ³With those who 
brought the occupier and killed and destroyed the future of this country?²

Reporting was contributed by David E. Sanger in Washington, Abdul Razzaq 
al-Saiedi and Khalid al-Ansary in Baghdad, Paul von Zielbauer in Taji and an 
Iraqi employee of The New York Times in Falluja.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

Escaping the Matrix website
cyberjournal website  
subscribe cyberjournal list     mailto:•••@••.•••
Posting archives      
  cyberjournal forum  
  Achieving real democracy
  for readers of ETM  
  Community Empowerment
  Blogger made easy