A Brighter Week for Iraq's Prime Minister

Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced a major political agreement between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds this week. We discuss this and other developments in Iraq, including fighting in Karbala and a congressional study group's impending recommendation to dismantle Iraq's national police force.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

ALEX COHEN, host:

And I'm Alex Cohen.

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CHADWICK: First to Iraq, where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has faced a lot of criticism for his inability to resolve deep divisions within his government. Some U.S. lawmakers, including Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, want him gone, but things actually did look brighter for the prime minister this week.

We go to Baghdad and NPR's Tom Bullock.

Tom, I don't remember hearing about a good week for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in a long time.

TOM BULLOCK: Maybe never, Alex. But this week was really a good week. It began with the prime minister being able to announce a major political agreement had been made with political leaders from the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds. It's the first time that all three groups have really sat down and talked about anything in weeks, and it's the first time they've signed something together in months.

Now, there's a couple of problems with this. What they've agreed to is to pass some key legislation, things that are seen as political benchmarks by U.S. officials. But here's where it gets to be a bit of a problem. The first is that Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, was in numerous closed door meetings with the political leaders, and that helped get this agreement signed. So it's not really clear how much of this is real Iraqi consensus and compromise, and how much of it is U.S. pressure.

CHADWICK: They're being pushed into it. Yeah.

BULLOCK: Exactly. And the other thing is the largest Sunni political block has walked out of Maliki's government; they did these weeks ago. And their leader, Tariq al-Hashmi, went to pains this week to say we have made this agreement, but we're not coming back to the government. We have more demands that need to be met. So it's really going to fall now on the Iraqi parliament, which should start next week, to see if any kind of political progress can be built on what is now simply a piece of paper.

CHADWICK: All right. Well, that was a good start to the week anyway. And then came news that Muqtada al-Sadr, the noted anti-American cleric and political leader, told his militias this week, hey, no more attacks. Take a six-month break. And we're all going to kind of get together. Now, did that have anything to do with the one big bad piece of news out of Iraq this week, a blow-up in this town of Karbala that had something to do with the pilgrimage?

BULLOCK: It probably came because of it. The fighting in Karbala is believed to have been between members of Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, and Iraqi security forces. And hundreds of thousands of Shiites had descended on this city for a religious ceremony that's very important to Shia religion. Everything had gone relatively well. The pilgrimage had been safe. There are really no flare-ups until Tuesday, when a gunfight erupted between these two sides that ended up killing 50 and wounding more than 200. Now, an Iraqi who works with us was one of the pilgrims to go to Karbala and he brought his microphone and was able to record this.

(Soundbite of gunfight)

CHADWICK: That just sounds very scary, Tom. So the fallout from this battle in Karbala - maybe it's Muqtada al-Sadr saying, okay, we're going to stop fighting for six months because this was so bad, this strife between the Shiites there?

BULLOCK: The major fallout is this is between two Shiite political groups, the two largest Shiite militias in the country - Muqtada Sadr's militia and what's called the Badr Brigade, which is loyal to Iraq's largest political party. Part of the fallout here may actually benefit Muqtada al-Sadr. By freezing his militia for six months it looks like he'll be able to see who's following his orders and who is not.

CHADWICK: Let me ask you about a story we're reading in a couple of papers. And that is that this study group that Congress has looking at Iraq is going to actually recommend disbanding the entire national police of Iraq? Can that be?

BULLOCK: It can, and it's an idea that's been kicked around here by U.S. and Iraqi officials quietly for quite some time. Ever since they were reformed, there's been a number of questions about the Iraqi police. Question about their role in kidnappings and murders. It's pretty common to drive around Baghdad and see pictures of, say, Muqtada al-Sadr on the exterior walls of police stations or of other Shiite leaders. And the Iraqi police are so distrusted by some U.S. commanders on the ground - U.S. military commanders on the ground in Baghdad - that it's not uncommon for the Iraqi police not to be allowed on missions or for the U.S. troops to confiscate their cell phones because they're afraid the Iraqi police are going to be tipping off the targets.

CHADWICK: NPR's Tom Bullock with us from Baghdad.

Tom, thank you.

BULLOCK: Thank you, Alex.

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