U.S. Military Questions Iraqi Government's Resolve

The U.S. military says it can't leave Iraq until there's a stronger government in place. But over the past few weeks, U.S. commanders have repeatedly expressed frustration with the Iraqi government. They say Iraq's government hasn't been able to provide essential services, weed out corruption or rein in brutal militias.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The U.S. military says it can't leave Iraq until there's a stronger government. But over the past few weeks, American commanders have repeatedly expressed frustration with that government. In particular, they say, Iraq's government hasn't been able to provide essential services, weed out corruption or reign in brutal militias. Those militias have become the biggest challenge to bringing security to the country. U.S. commanders privately worry that Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki lacks the clout to take on these issues, and they warn, time is running out.

NPR's Anne Garrels joins us now from Baghdad. Good morning.

ANNE GARRELS: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: What triggered this rash of criticism?

GARRELS: Well, U.S. commanders have been conducting expanded operations in Baghdad to try to clear up the most violent neighborhoods, and part of that plan is then for Iraq's government ministries to go in with services to show progress. But as one senior officer lamented, you've got American generals touring the neighborhoods picking up trash, but no sign of the Iraqis. In the meantime, there were more suicide bomb attacks last week than in any week since the American-led invasion of 2003. And while death squad activity initially dropped in the areas that the U.S. is clearing in Baghdad, a senior intelligence official told reporters yesterday that they're re-emerging, possibly with the help from people in the Ministry of the Interior.

MONTAGNE: Who all, together, do officials believe are behind these killings?

GARRELS: Well, of course there are extremists from both Shiite and Sunni groups. But this intelligence official said the vast preponderance of killings at the moment are by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army. He said some of those killings are with the knowledge of Sadr.

But, he said, Sadr has apparently lost control of up to a third of his militia men, and he called these rogue elements who believe Sadr's no longer sufficiently radical. And according to this senior official, six major Mehdi leaders no longer answer to Sadr and now are basically selling their services to the highest bidders. And this is where he said Iran comes in. Iran is trying to take advantage of this.

MONTAGNE: And to what degree do American officials believe Iran is involved?

GARRELS: They think Iran is trying, you know, at this point, to use the anarchy to influence lots of different groups, often competing groups, not knowing who's going to come on top in the end. One of these is Sadr's militia, as well as the rogue elements. Now, Sadr wants to copy Hezbollah's organization, and some of his men go to Iran for instruction. Iran is also supplying weapons to various groups.

This senior intelligence official cited shipments of weapons and explosives with labels that trace back to Iranian stockpiles or weapons manufacturers. And he said because military-grade explosives are carefully controlled by the Iranian government, there has to be some official involvement.

MONTAGNE: Anne, you just mentioned official Iraqi corruption. Today in the Washington Post there's a story suggesting possible American corruption, or at least mismanagement, in the construction of Iraq's new police academy. That's a $75 million project. What can you tell us about that?

GARRELS: Well, according to the Office of the Special Inspector General for Reconstruction, the project to build the police academy in Iraq has been so grossly mismanaged, it's required major repairs, and in fact, parts may have to be just pulled down. The report questions whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failed to monitor the project adequately.

This police academy issue is particularly embarrassing because the U.S. military had declared this - the year of the police - with concentrated efforts to expand and improve training of recruits and clean up the death squads within that force. Instead, you know, officials are saying the U.S. is busy cleaning out the police academy building, where sewage is running down the walls.

MONTAGNE: Thanks, Anne, very much. NPR's Anne Garrels speaking from Baghdad.

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