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Iraqi Leader Charts Nation's Priorities
Rebuilding, Reconciliation Top List, but Analysts Warn of Political Deadlock

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 10, 2006

BAGHDAD, June 9 -- As the dust settled Friday from the news that Iraq's most notorious insurgent leader had been killed and that its new government had finally been completed, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki outlined a plan to confront the country's deeper problems of rampant violence, economic stagnation and rapacious corruption.

In an article published on the opinion pages of The Washington Post and other newspapers Friday, Maliki said his four-year term would focus on strengthening Iraq's security forces and disarming militias, rebuilding the infrastructure of more secure areas before other parts of the country, and beginning a "national reconciliation" to end the fighting between Iraq's ethnic and sectarian groups.

While the death of the insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in a U.S. airstrike Wednesday and the selection of three key security ministers Thursday were bound to bolster Maliki's government, aides, allies and analysts still warned that his agenda could become mired in political fighting. Some Sunni Arab leaders have already signaled unhappiness with Maliki's government, and the leading Shiite coalition of parties has its own divisions over the disarming of militias and the dividing of the country into federal regions.

"Perhaps circumstances will work in his favor, but it seems to me that the factionalization that made it so hard to get a government together, and then to find people to fill the security posts, has not ended," Gregory Gause, a Middle East expert at the University of Vermont, wrote in an e-mail. "I hope I am wrong, and I, like everybody, am caught up in a mini-wave of optimism in the wake of the waxing of al-Zarqawi, but I fear that Maliki does not have the kind of political support necessary to achieve his ambitious agenda."

The centerpiece of that agenda is dealing with the security crisis. Maliki promised to aggressively confront insurgent organizations, particularly in Baghdad. But the other half of his plan entails peacefully integrating militia groups into the army and police.

The two strongest Shiite militias, the Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization, are said to number more than 10,000 fighters each, and both are affiliated with powerful political parties. Both groups have been accused of kidnapping and murdering members of Iraq's Sunni Arab minority and corrupting the police and army with sectarian rivalries. In some regions, such as southern Iraq, the militias also have carried out attacks on U.S. and allied forces.

"It is imperative that we reestablish a state monopoly on weapons by putting an end to militias," Maliki wrote Friday. "Unlike previous efforts, this will be done in a way that ensures that militia members are identified at the start, dispersed to avoid any concentration of one group in a department or unit, and then monitored to ensure loyalty only to the state."

Adnan Ali al-Kadhimi, an aide to Maliki, said the prime minister would begin by classifying the militias according to their history of cooperation with the government and whether they were formed inside or outside Iraq. He also said the government would consider paying pensions to some older members. He predicted that it would be easier to integrate the Badr Organization, which has uniforms and a military-style hierarchy of ranks and keeps records on its members, than the more loosely organized Mahdi Army.

Kadhimi said that it would be impossible to integrate all of the militia members into the national security strategy and that disbanding the groups by force was a final option.

"You always get some infiltration from these militias. You also get some corruption. It's in many institutions, many ministries. We need the government to be in charge of security and nobody else. We need them to integrate and to disarm everybody," he said.

But Kamran Qaradaghi, a spokesman for President Jalal Talabani, pointed out that the main difficulty in getting rid of the militias was that the most powerful parties in the government controlled the strongest militia organizations, and that it would be hard to find an incentive for them to give them up.

"Those groups are part of the government, so probably they will have to get together and find a solution," Qaradaghi said in a telephone interview. "It will not be easy. But they can't go on having a situation where you have an Iraqi army, police, security forces and then the militias."

Yet Talabani himself has repeatedly defended the right of his own ethnic group, the Kurds, to run a militia. The group, known as the pesh merga , existed before U.S.-led troops toppled Saddam Hussein's government in 2003 and would continue to exist for a long time, Qaradaghi said.

"In all of Iraq, there is this kind of dual identity," Qaradaghi said. "For Kurds, there are people whose first identity is Kurdish and then Iraqi. It will take time to change loyalties."

Maliki has attempted to calm sectarian rivalries by giving shares of power to Iraq's most influential ethnic and sectarian groups. Thus the new interior minister, Jawad al-Bolani, is a Shiite, and the defense minister, Abdul Qadir Muhammed Jassim, is a Sunni.

Kadhimi also warned that it would be difficult to tame corruption within the government itself, corruption Maliki vowed to combat by strengthening the Commission for Public Integrity, a group that investigates corruption cases, and by reducing government subsidies.

Kadhimi noted that corruption investigators' claims rarely reached court and that even when they did, the judges' decisions were not carried out for fear of the consequences.

"It is a disease, and it is going to take time to find a cure," Kadhimi said.

Special correspondent Omar Fekeiki contributed to this report.

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