Iraqi leader balks on U.S. timeline

Posted in United States , Iraq | 26-Oct-06 | Author: Sabrina Tavernise| Source: International Herald Tribune

“This is an elected government, and only the people who elected the government have the right to make time limitations or amendments.” PRIME MINISTER NURI KAMAL AL-MALIKI OF IRAQ
BAGHDAD Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki put himself at odds with the American government that backs him on Wednesday, distancing himself from the American notion of a timetable for stabilizing Iraq and criticizing an American-backed raid on a Shiite militia enclave.

Speaking in Baghdad just hours before President Bush gave a news conference in Washington, Maliki tailored his remarks for his own domestic audience, reassuring the millions of Shiites who form his power base that he would not bend to pressure by the American government over how to conduct internal Iraqi affairs.

His comments stood in stark contrast to the message given on Tuesday by the two top American officials in Iraq, General George W. Casey Jr. and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who said the timetable for political measures was one the Iraqi government had accepted.

"I want to stress that this is a government of the people's will and no one has the right to set a timetable for it," Maliki said at a news conference broadcast on national television.

"This is an elected government and only the people who elected the government have the right to make time limitations or amendments," he said, stabbing the air with his hand.

The remarks pointed to a widening schism between the Shiite-led Iraqi government and the Americans who support it.

As the violence here increases and midterm elections in the United States near, Maliki has come under pressure from the Bush administration to step up efforts to control the killing. But the very forces that elevated him to power and whose support he must retain - religious Shiite parties with their own militias - are complicit in the killing.

That tension was on public display in his remarks on Wednesday. While acknowledging the problems presented by militias and death squads - groups of men with guns that American military officials say are some of the primary culprits in the new phase of bloodletting here - Maliki said pointedly that the main factor driving the violence was insurgents and militant fighters, largely Sunni Arabs, who have been killing Shiites for more than three years.

"Saddamists and terrorist groups are responsible for what is going on this country and the reactions," he said, in a reference to retaliatory killing by Shiite militias that began after the bombing of a shrine sacred to Shiites in February. "We should contain the reactions."

Maliki's stance differs sharply from views presented by American officials, who speak of Shiite death squads as an evil equal to that of the Sunni Arab insurgents. But it fits snugly inside the circle of hardening Shiite sentiment that the American military, in keeping full control of security, has not given the Iraqi government full powers to intervene when Sunni militias or insurgents carry out sectarian cleansing.

"Most of the officials feel like their hands are tied," said one Shiite politician, who asked not to be identified because the topic was sensitive. "They can't take critical decisions at critical times."

The politician cited the example of Saab al-Bour, a largely Shiite town with Sunni Arab outskirts northwest of Baghdad, from which hundreds of Shiite families have fled in the past month after attacks by Sunni insurgents. Shiites were "crying for help," he said, but the government could not come to their aid because of confusion over which country's troops were responsible for the area.

Americans have held onto control over security partly because they do not trust that Iraqi forces are up to the job. They also fear selective enforcement by the government in favor of Shiites, who form a large part of Iraq's security forces, particularly its police, whose ranks are infiltrated by militias.

Maliki is stuck in the middle, forced to navigate between the rising tide of frustration among Shiites who form his base and the American government that wields the power.

Evidence of that increasing discomfort showed in Maliki's reaction to an American raid on a suspected Shiite death squad leader early Wednesday morning.

The raid took place at dawn in Sadr City, a vast district of cinderblock houses that is the stronghold of the Mahdi Army, a large Shiite militia that fought two battles against the American military under the command of a radical Shiite cleric, Moktada al-Sadr.

Iraqi forces and American advisers entered the far northern tip of the district, the domain of an infamous Shiite guerilla leader known by his Iraqi nickname, Abu Dera, and immediately came under fire. The military called in air support, and aircraft fired high-caliber guns at militiamen on the ground, a military official said.

The American military reported that 10 militiamen were killed and two were wounded in the fight that residents said lasted for several hours. Iraqi authorities put the wounded at 20. Soldiers then continued to a nearby mosque where the military suspected kidnappers of a missing American soldier were located, and they detained three suspects.

"We will ask for a clarification on that from the multinational forces," Maliki said. "This is an issue we will review together so that it will not happen again. The Iraqi government should know about and have a role in these military operations."

It was not clear whether Maliki was publicly posturing to play to his Shiite base or whether he had genuinely been taken by surprise. The raid was carried out by Iraqi forces, backed by Americans. But in nearly all cases, Americans initiate secret raids.

"The Iraqi government is a prisoner in the Green Zone, it's helpless," said Jaleel al-Nuri, a representative for Sadr. "They are like puppets moved by the coalition forces."

American military, for its part, said the Iraqi government had approved the raid, which targeted "a top illegal armed group commander directing widespread death squad activities." It said that 10 suspects were detained but it did not say whether the target was among them.

Residents said that Abu Dera, whose real name is Ismail al-Zerjawi, was not among those captured, though his son was wounded and his cousin killed. Once loyal to Sadr, Abu Dera broke away in 2004 and now runs his own influential crime ring. He is famous among Shiites, who put his image on their cellphones and refer to him as the Zarqawi of the Shiites, a reference to the former Al Qaeda leader who exhorted Sunni Arabs to kill Shiites.

Late on Wednesday, low-flying American fighter jets were still screaming over the capital, and Shiites visiting family in far eastern neighborhoods reported that the entire eastern portion of the city was closed off by Iraqi Army checkpoints.

Maliki has acted before to assert Shiite influence over American military decision-making. In a similar raid last week, an aide to Sadr was arrested, and released a day later at the request of Maliki, who was about to visit Sadr.

General Casey said on Tuesday that he personally allowed the release.

"I made the call in support of the prime minister and my assessment was operational risk was far exceeded by potential strategic payoff," he said.

Perhaps the most vivid illustration of just how uncomfortable Shiites have become with full American control is a new push to amend the terms of the United Nations agreement that extends the mandate of the multinational forces in Iraq, essentially providing the legal basis for the United States and other countries to have their militaries here.

Iraq's national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, said the government would like to speed up the process of handing over Iraqi troops to Iraqi control. Currently, only two provinces are controlled by Iraqis, and Iraqis are in full charge of two out of 10 Iraqi Army divisions.

Maliki said Wednesday that the government would draw up a new agreement that will allow it to move Iraqi Army units and run security operations in "Sadr City or any other tense area."

"We don't want to give the coalition forces the absolute authority to take the security responsibility all over the country," Dr. Rubaie said. "We think we can do things better and it's the time now."

"We need to be given the opportunity to make mistakes."

The push by Iraqi authorities for more control over their own security comes as American military officials scale back estimates of the readiness of Iraqi troops. General Casey said Tuesday that it would be another 12 to 18 months before Iraqi troops take control, longer than originally predicted.