By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 13, 2006
BAGHDAD, April 12 -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's trip here this month to pressure Iraqi leaders to form a new government sparked a slew of familiar complaints about U.S. meddling in Iraqi affairs.
One party official described the visit as "manipulation" that cheated the politicians out of exercising their newly won democratic rights.
The spokesman for an influential cleric called her presence "unwelcome" and accused her of "suspicious intentions."
Less familiar, however, was the source of the charges: Iraq's Shiite Muslim leaders, close U.S. allies since the 2003 invasion. Meanwhile, Sunni Arab politicians, some of whom dined with Rice on her only night in Baghdad, made a point of thanking her and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad for what they called their newfound evenhandedness.
"I looked Condi in the eye and told her, 'Your ambassador shows tremendous courage and is doing a hell of good job in Iraq,' " said Tariq al-Hashimi, secretary general of the Iraqi Islamic Party, which like almost all Sunni parties boycotted Iraq's January 2005 elections and has denounced the American occupation at every turn. Before that night, he said, he had never met the secretary of state.
In recent weeks there has been stepped-up pressure on Iraq's Shiite leaders, including strong statements about the dangers posed by Shiite militias, less-than-subtle discouragement of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari's bid to keep his post and accusations against Iraq's Shiite-ruled neighbor, Iran, of fomenting instability.
A joint U.S.-Iraqi army raid last month on a religious and political complex in Baghdad, which included an office of Jafari's Dawa party and an alleged hide-out for a Shiite militia, further inflamed the rift. Some Shiite leaders have complained openly of betrayal by the United States and compared the recent U.S. diplomatic stance to the Americans' refusal to actively support an abortive Shiite uprising against Saddam Hussein in 1991.
"There's lots of talks in the street and among politicians who see that lately the Americans are hard on the Shiites and favoring the Sunnis by rewarding them and hoping they are going to lay down their weapons and stop being the resistance. There is fear and concern," said Adnan Ali Kadhimi, an adviser to Jafari.
In the zero-sum game of Iraqi politics, in which someone who applies pressure to one group can become the new friend of another, Sunni Arab political leaders are embracing American policy as never before.
Shiite politicians remained deadlocked Wednesday about their choice for a new prime minister, delaying the formation of a new national unity government that the United States has said will help stem rampant instability. Despite flagging support, Jafari has said he will not step aside.
Meanwhile, Sunni parties, most of which oppose Jafari's nomination, are biding their time, all but assured of several ministerial posts when the dispute is settled.
Links between the United States and Iraqi Shiites date to the 1990s, when U.S. officials began plotting Hussein's overthrow with an Iraqi exile community dominated by such Shiites as Jafari, Ayad Allawi, who later became Iraq's transitional prime minister, and Ahmed Chalabi, whose organization provided prewar intelligence that helped build the case against Hussein but is now widely disputed.
U.S. officials privately acknowledge that their relations with many Shiite leaders have frayed, but they say they are eager to maintain strong ties to Shiites, who make up an estimated 60 percent of Iraq's population. "You have to keep in mind that the Shiites will be the most important force in the government," one U.S. official said in a recent interview. "We will be working with them."
In an apparent nod to Shiite sentiment, Rice went out of her way during her recent visit to thank Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country's most revered Shiite cleric, for "his wisdom and his courage and his leadership."
Yet Rice's praise for Sunni politicians was similarly effusive. After her dinner in Baghdad, which in addition to Hashimi included Kurdish leaders and Saleh Mutlak, a Sunni politician who has long been accused of ties to Iraqi insurgent groups, Rice noted what she called a "considerable maturing of the Sunni political leadership." Later, in an interview with CBS News, she called the Sunnis' entry into politics "one of the most extraordinary developments" of the past year.
Mutlak, Hashimi and others say that after months of raising concerns with U.S. officials in Baghdad, they finally feel that their voices are being heard -- and echoed in recent statements by Khalilzad and officials in Washington.
For nearly a year, Sunni leaders have accused the Shiite militias operating out of the Shiite-led Interior Ministry of operating death squads and secret prisons. Responding to a wave of militia violence in the wake of the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, U.S. officials have said dealing with the militias should be one of the government's top priorities.
"They used to say to me, 'Mr. Hashimi, you are exaggerating. It is not as bad as you say.' Nobody listened to us," said the leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, which like Shiite parties faced repression under Hussein's rule. "But after February 22, our voice was very clear about militias, and they had an encouraging response. They acknowledged the fears we declared."
Khalilzad's recent statements about Iran, which the United States has accused of training and arming Shiite militias as well as Sunni insurgent groups, also echoed a long-expressed Sunni complaint.
Mutlak said he told Rice at the dinner that the sectarian tension between Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites had arrived with the U.S. invasion force in 2003. "I am not sure she agreed or not," he said. "But she listened to me. When they came to Iraq, absolutely they were biased to the Shiites. I think they are being more evenhanded than what they were before. They realized they cannot solve the problems in Iraq without us."
Sunni leaders say the new U.S. stance has opened the way for dialogue between U.S. officials and Sunni-led insurgent groups. Khalilzad, while circumspect about details, has acknowledged such contacts in recent weeks.
Mutlak said Americans have held discussions mostly with smaller insurgent groups linked to better-known armed groups. Among the issues on the table, predicated on insurgents laying down their weapons, he said, are amnesty for some categories of insurgents, incorporating more Sunnis into Iraq's security forces, economic support for impoverished Sunni regions and a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawals.
"I think if they can reach a good agreement with these groups, they can jump to bigger groups," he said. "But it is just beginning."