President Bush Reliance on Maliki Risky for US and Iraq

President Bush’s announcement that the US will send in more troops to quell sectarian violence in Iraq has raised eyebrows and skepticism at home and abroad.

Yet the greatest cause for concern seems to be continued American reliance on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to meet political and economic benchmarks that will form the basis of a long-term solution to Iraq’s civil war. These benchmarks include:

  • amending the Iraqi constitution to allow greater political participation of the Sunni minority
  • enacting distribution of oil revenues to ensure that Sunni regions get an equal share
  • conducting provincial elections throughout Iraq
  • lifting the ban on former Ba’ath Party members to allow them to work for the government
  • crushing local Shiite militias and death squads to restore security, especially in Baghdad

Despite his repeated promises, Mr Maliki is widely regarded as incapable of moving beyond his political base to build consensus within his government to achieve these goals.

Instead, Mr Maliki has gradually garnered a reputation for blatant Shiite sectarian bias. This is reflected in his fierce protection of the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who controls 30 parliamentary seats and six cabinet positions within Mr Maliki’s government – and provides the foundation for the Prime Minister’s political power.

Most recently, Mr Maliki defended the conduct of the execution of Saddam Hussein, which assumed the appearance of a Shiite mob lynching. Mobile phone footage captured Mahdi Army militia men taunting Mr Hussein on the gallows before he was dropped to his death while praying. Sunnis have been deeply offended by the grisly spectacle, especially since the execution was carried out on the first day of their holiest religious festival, during which executions have long been banned in Iraq.

The perception of provocation towards Iraq’s Sunni minority has only been reinforced by Mr Maliki’s ongoing refusal to disarm Shiite militias while targeting Sunni insurgents.

In his speech on Wednesday, President Bush alluded to the failure of previous US attempts to crack down on armed militias in Baghdad because of political and sectarian interference, but did not name Prime Minister Maliki as the culprit. Last year, the US military launched Operation Forward Together, which partnered US troops with Iraqi forces in an effort to calm the violence and secure Baghdad. However, Mr Maliki vigorously opposed US military operations in Sadr City, home of the Mahdi Army which has been identified by the US as the greatest threat to security. The operation ultimately failed.

Mr Maliki has now warned militias to disarm or face an all-out assault, but is said to be maneuvering to target the Sunni strongholds of Abu Graib, Haifa Street, Salman Park, Mahmoudiya and Latifiya before moving on to Sadr City, where the Mahdi Army has now ordered every man aged 15-45 to register for combat. Mr Maliki continues to insist that the best way to disarm the Mahdi Army is to neutralize al Qaeda and insurgents first, which would reduce local support for the Shiite militia.

Despite these and other concerns, Mr Bush confirmed that the Iraqi government and security forces will be given more control over the new effort to secure Baghdad, which will begin on February 15. On that date, Iraqi commanders will assume control of Baghdad, one in each of the city’s nine districts.

Another impediment to the long-term effectiveness of the Iraqi army will be more difficult to resolve: its sectarian composition, which remains 80% Shiite. It has been reported that Mr Maliki will need to enlist two Kurdish brigades from northern Iraq to crack down on local militias in Baghdad, because most of the security forces refuse to fight their fellow Shiites. The Kurds are non-Arab Sunni Muslims.

Regardless of the outcome of the latest military escalation, ordinary Shiite and Sunni Iraqis will be looking to their Prime Minister to provide a permanent resolution to the conflict and deliver on his promises to build a peaceful and unified Iraq.

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