Maliki Cool to Bush Approach to Sunnis, Militias

Much of President Bush's new strategy for success in Iraq rests on the Iraqis themselves. The plan calls for, among other things, political reconciliation, more involvement of Iraqi troops, and large reconstruction investments. The question is will the Iraqis be able to live up to President Bush's vision for their country?

U.S. officials complain that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's nine-month tenure in office is scarred with broken promises and unfulfilled expectations about his government's efforts to bring security to Iraq. President Bush, in his speech on Wednesday, made it clear that now Maliki must assume more responsibility for his country's future — in particular, security.

Bush's plan calls for an increase in U.S. troops, military trainers and advisers — and a significant increase in the number of Iraqi soldiers and policemen in Baghdad. In the past, there was frustration among U.S. officials about Iraqi political interference during military operations. Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates indicated all that's changed.

"I think one of the most important commitments that the prime minister has made is that in this offensive, the military will have the authority to go after all law-breakers," Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "There are no exceptions."

Gates was asked — but declined to say specifically — if that included Muqtada al-Sadr, the head of a powerful Shiite militia and a key supporter of Prime Minister Maliki. Those types of overlapping allegiances have exasperated U.S. officials who have been pushing Maliki to rein in the militias.

Nora Bensahel, a senior political scientist at Rand Corporation, says its unlikely that will happen.

"Maliki himself gets a lot of support from the Shiite groups and from some of the Shiite militias," Bensahel said. "I think it will be very difficult for him to truly live up to the pledge he made which was to crack down on all of the militias regardless of their particular identity and their particular background."

President Bush's plan also urges the Iraqi parliament to pass legislation ensuring the fair distribution of oil revenues. And it says that $10 billion of Iraqi funds should be channeled into jobs and reconstruction projects.

So far, Maliki's Shiite-dominated government has pumped few dollars into Sunni regions. That has raised questions about whether the prime minister truly wants a unity government. Paul Hughes of the U.S. Institute of Peace says achieving political unity may not be possible.

"It's very difficult for the government to try and reach out to opponents outside the government, to bring them in a reconcile, when the government itself is not reconciled among its own members," he said.

President Bush's plan has the feel of a last-ditch effort. But what if the Iraqis fail to deliver on their end of the bargain? The Rand Corporation's Bensahel says U.S. leverage is limited — a notion not lost on the Iraqis.

"If it's just the threat of the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces, I'm not sure that creates the right incentives for the government to go along with the U.S. strategy," Bensahel said. "I think you will see a lot of political jockeying to try to come up with the best position in the inevitable chaos after the U.S. withdraws. I don't think that necessarily creates pressure on them to do what the president of the U.S. wants."

Rick Barton, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the U.S. can't be determinative at this point, in part because the Iraqis are dealing with what's happening there in their own way.

"Tens of thousands more people might get killed," Barton said. "If we can help prevent that, that would be of value. But, again, let's be realistic in terms of what our influence is in this case and what our likely commitment is."

The president's plan doesn't put any deadlines for Maliki to carry out any of the political goals. But administration officials indicate their patience is limited.

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