Iraq prime minister mum on Bush plans

Updated: 2007-01-13 08:46

BAGHDAD - President Bush called a crackdown on Shiite militias critical to success in Iraq, but Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been noticeably silent - perhaps because Bush's plan would mean attacks on the Shiite radicals who have helped his Shiite coalition expand its political dominance.

In announcing a new Iraq policy Wednesday night, Bush said earlier efforts to tame the sectarian bloodshed in Baghdad had been snarled by "political and sectarian interference (that) prevented Iraqi and American forces from going into neighborhoods that are home to those fueling the sectarian violence.

It's the third time since May that a joint U.S.-Iraqi program to calm the capital has been announced.

Iraq's prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki delivers a speech during celebrations of the Iraqi Army Day at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Baghdad, Iraq, in a Saturday, Jan. 6, 2007 photo. [AP]
"This time, Iraqi and American forces will have a green light to enter those neighborhoods," Bush said. "Prime Minister Maliki has pledged that political or sectarian interference will not be tolerated."

However, al-Maliki, a devout Shiite, hasn't said anything nearly so straightforward, at least in public. He's issued instead vague assurances that anyone illegally carrying weapons would be dealt with harshly.

Announcing his vision of the new security plan last Saturday, al-Maliki said he would fight against "safe haven for any outlaws, regardless of (their) sectarian or political affiliation."

He has been saying that to Iraqis for months including in October when he ordered U.S. forces in October to stop all attacks on Sadr City, headquarters of the Mahdi Army, a violent Shiite militia headed by his key political backer, radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Al-Maliki instead has encouraged the Americans to go after rival Sunni insurgents, especially in the territory west of Baghdad where few Shiites live.

Experts say that even if al-Maliki's assures Bush of support, his behavior illustrates that he's not as Bush described, a man whose primary concern is bringing peace and prosperity to his country.

"The Bush administration has one view of Iraqi reality in which Maliki honest broker," said W. Patrick Lang, a former head of Middle East intelligence at the Defense Intelligence Agency. "In my view, Maliki is one of any number of Shiite Arab activists who are seeking to consolidate Shiite control."

The radical Shiites already were predicting Bush's plan was doomed.

"We reject Bush's new strategy and we think it will fail," said Abdul-Razzaq al-Nidawi, a senior official in al-Sadr's office in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.

"We call upon the American people to oppose sending more of their sons to Iraq so that they will not be flown back in coffins," he said.

Al-Maliki, who first outlined a new Iraqi-led security plan to Bush when they met in Amman, Jordan, in November, has never sought an increased U.S. military footprint in Iraq. He has argued for the Americans increasingly to pull out of the cities and leave security to the Iraqi Army, which is 80 percent Shiite. The Americans would respond only when needed.

An Iraqi general told The Associated Press earlier this week that the army intended to put 9 brigades on the streets of Baghdad, or a total of about 27,000 men.

The force would be commanded by a Shiite, Lt. Gen. Aboud Gambar, who was taken prisoner of war by U.S. forces during the 1991 Gulf war and will report directly to al-Maliki.

The military officer, who spoke anonymously because the information was not yet public, said for the most part the Iraqi force would not be directed against the Shiite militias. The majority of fighting against the Mahdi Army in Sadr city would be left to the Americans in tandem with the Iraqi Special Operations Command, which is made up of many non-Arab Kurds as well as Sunni and Shiite Arabs.

Muqtedar Khan, a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, said he suspects the Iraqi leader is simply trying to placate the Americans, whom, it seems, he can't live with or without.

"This is the kind of game most global politicians are born with," said Khan, who is also a professor of Islam and global studies at the University of Delaware. "It's called managing Washington."

Al-Maliki is in a tight spot, he said, caught between his radical Shiite supporters and his American backers, who help finance and protect his fractious government. Khan sees a way out, but he's not hopeful al-Maliki can pull it off.

"If Maliki can send a message that he is for the Iraqi people and that's he tough," he may survive, Khan said, explaining that the prime minister needs to find a way to convincingly tell ordinary Iraqis that, "I'm tough on Sadr. I'm tough on Bush."

But Lang thinks that if al-Maliki allows U.S. troops to clear Shiite areas of militias, his "position will become more and more impossible, and his government will fall."

And Naim al-Kaabi, Baghdad's deputy mayor and a senior member of al-Sadr's political organization, declared support for the Bush plan to attack Sunni insurgents but not the Mahdi Army, which he claimed was not a militia.

"It is an ideological group whose aim is to protect religious leaders, holy shrines and civilians. If the government can guarantee security the Mahdi Army will dissolve," al-Kaabi said.

The militia is widely held responsible, often with the blessing of Iraqi authorities, of cleansing mixed neighborhoods of their Sunni minorities as the Mahdi Army has expanded its hold deep into west Baghdad Sunni enclaves.

Al-Maliki aides have suggested the prime minister will attempt to avoid an all-out attack on the militia by attempting first to focus the new security drive on Sunni insurgent-held regions of the capital. If that were to prove successful, the theory goes, al-Maliki could then go the Mahdi Army and demand it disband because Shiites were no longer under threat.

Regardless, some Mahdi Army leaders in Sadr City said Friday that they "expect a strike soon."

The fighters, who would not give their names because their activities are secret, said they were being cautious about moving about Sadr City and have taken pains not to appear in the streets with weapons.

"We don't know how the strike will be carried out or when," one of the fighters said.

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