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Alienating Maliki

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Photo courtesy of AFP.
by Martin Sieff
UPI Senior News Analyst
Washington (UPI) Oct 30, 2006
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is biting the hand that feeds him -- but he knows what he's doing. On Wednesday, an angry Maliki outspokenly rejected comments made only the day before by top U.S. diplomatic and military officials in Iraq that he had to come up with a timetable or time-line setting dates to disarm Iraq's powerful and ferociously warring militias.

The calls to do so came from Zalmay Khalizad, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad and from Gen. George Casey, commander of U.S. military forces in Iraq.

Maliki ironically used the very democratic process that Bush policymakers took such pride in as the source of his legitimacy and authority to reject the U.S. calls. "I affirm that this government represents the will of the people, and no one has the right to impose a timetable on it," he said.

In the six months since becoming prime minister of Iraq, Maliki has been forced to preside over a relentless deterioration of the security situation in the country. It did not happen as the result of decisions he took, and it was well under way before he became prime minister, but despite having supposedly 300,000 troops, police and other security forces at his command -- more than twice the manpower of U.S. military forces in his country -- he and his government have been unable to prevent the escalation of random killings, mass ethnic cleansing and the other horrific characteristics of full-scale civil war.

However, Maliki has worked hard to try and gain and retain a degree of personal credibility with the Shiite majority community that constitutes 60 percent of the population of the California-sized nation of 28 million people. The main military pillars of support for him and his own Dawa party in fact are not the national army created at breakneck speed and with much fanfare by the U.S. military and the Bush administration. They are his own political Dawa Party, the Shiite Supreme Council for the Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, and the Mahdi Army of charismatic anti-American firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr.

As we have noted in previous analyses, real power in Baghdad and in much of Shiite-dominated southern Iraq rests not with the police or the national army, but with these Shiite militias and their local allies.

The Shiite-dominated and predominately officered new Iraqi army has tried to avoid outright clashes with these militias whenever possible and in many areas its local units have tacitly cooperated with them.

U.S. military spokesmen have downplayed the degree to which these militias have successfully infiltrated the new security forces, but Maliki was forced a few weeks ago to fire the head of a national special police unit because sectarian Shiite murder squads had been operating with members within the police.

Therefore, by pressuring Maliki to use his fragile new armed forces to try and crush Shiite militias as well as the Sunni insurgents operating in Baghdad, U.S. leaders have only weakened their own ties with the Iraqi government, with Maliki personally and with the Shiite majority community in general.

The potential dangers of this development are far more dangerous than any atrocity or strategy the Sunni insurgents have come up with over the past three and a half years. For the Sunni insurgents have been able to derail ambitious U.S. political and strategic objectives for Iraq while operating as a relatively small minority within a community of only 5 million Sunni Muslim Iraqis, less than 20 percent of the total population.

But the 16-17 million Shiites of Iraq comprise at least 60 percent of the nation's population, and they are far better organized and armed thanks precisely to consistent U.S. policies over the past three and a half years than the Sunnis are.

The Shiites effectively control the new police, army and other major security forces, and Shiite militias, also supported to differing degrees by neighboring Iran have proven able to get far more weapons than the Sunni insurgents have managed to do.

Therefore, since the Shiite militias cut loose with a wave of reprisal attacks following the bombing of their sacred al-Askariya, or Golden Mosque, in Samara on Feb.22, they have been killing Sunnis at an estimated rate of four times the number of Shiites killed by Sunni insurgents.

The more U.S. policymakers have pressured the Maliki government to crack down on the Shiite militias, therefore, the greater has been the distrust and hostility it has inspired among the very Shiite forces they worked so hard to organize, arm and empower.

The ultimate outcome of this process may well be that one day in the none too distant future, U.S. troops in Iraq will find themselves fighting not merely the paramilitary Shiite militias but also the Shiite-dominated armed forces they trained and armed.

This dark irony is far from unprecedented in Iraqi history. The last time Iraq was a parliamentary democracy from 1932 to 1958, the Iraqi army rebelled three times against the occupying British forces that were supposedly there as allies, to protect British interests and to guarantee the stability of the country.

Those rebellions occurred in 1936, 1941 and 1958. In 1941, the Iraqi tried to stab Britain in the back when it was fighting Nazi Germany and tried to join the Nazis as their ally. In 1958,, they finally succeeded in forcing the British to abandon Iraq and give up their vast economic interests there.

Maliki's comments Wednesday therefore should not be disregarded as either unimportant political maneuvers or the ungrateful anger of someone fated always to be loyal to his American allies. They are, to use Thomas Jefferson's famous phrase, a fire bell in the night, warning of the dangers of a reckless and little understood policy.

Source: United Press International

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