American Commanders Question Political Will Of Iraqi Prime Minister

Men carry a body from the site of a U.S. raid and airstrike in Baqubah in which eight people were killed. The U.S. military said the target was a suspected terrorist's house. Relatives of the dead disputed that account.
Men carry a body from the site of a U.S. raid and airstrike in Baqubah in which eight people were killed. The U.S. military said the target was a suspected terrorist's house. Relatives of the dead disputed that account. (By Mohammed Adnan -- Associated Press)
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 28, 2006

BAGHDAD, Sept. 27 -- Senior U.S. military commanders are questioning whether Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has the political will to weed out official corruption and tackle the brutal militias that are threatening to plunge Iraq into civil war.

"It's going to take time for a government to cleanse itself over time," said a senior U.S. military official who spoke on condition of anonymity at a briefing with reporters. "I've got to give it time to do that and hope that I have a prime minister that's going to take that on."

The questions come as sectarian violence and the spread of militias have replaced the insurgency as the biggest challenge to U.S. efforts to bring security to Baghdad and other parts of Iraq. The major militias are arms of political parties inside Iraq's fragile coalition government and have widely infiltrated the security forces, placing Maliki, who has vowed to disarm the militias, in a delicate political position.

The questions about Maliki are being posed only privately, with U.S. officials in their public statements still voicing cautious confidence in Maliki's ability to recognize and tackle the problems.

"We have to fix this militia issue," said Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the second-ranking U.S. military official in Baghdad. "We can't have armed militias competing with Iraq's security forces. But I have to trust the prime minister to decide when it is that we do that."

But in recent days, senior U.S. military commanders have suggested that if the Maliki government fails to take action soon, they may have to step in and pressure the government to go after militias holed up in neighborhoods around Baghdad. Their primary target is most likely the Mahdi Army, a militia linked to radical anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr that Sunni Muslims accuse of running death squads under the mantle of Shiite Islam.

"We are now at a time when we have a little bit of influence there," said the senior U.S. military official. "There is going to come a time when I would argue we are going to have to force this issue. . . . We have to, wherever we can, use what pressure, what influence we have, to get them as quickly as possible to clear these places out."

Complicating matters for the Maliki government are growing concerns over official graft that is so rife that it resembles the days under President Saddam Hussein, when such corruption was an accepted part of life.

"I can tell you in every single ministry how they are using that ministry to fill the coffers of the political parties," said the senior U.S. military official. "They are doing that because that is exactly what Saddam Hussein did."

The officials' comments underscore a growing frustration over the speed of government reform efforts, at a time when pressure is mounting back home for a withdrawal of U.S. troops. The private questions about Maliki's abilities also come after a particularly violent month in Baghdad and across Iraq, as suicide bombings and execution-style slayings have continued unabated.

"This has been a tough week. Over the past two weeks, we have seen a rise in the number of attacks, especially in Baghdad," said Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell. "Murders and executions are currently the number one cause of civilian deaths in Baghdad."

Ali Dabbagh, a government spokesman, said Wednesday that the militia problem needed to be tackled carefully in order not to disrupt the nation's delicate political balance and efforts to reconcile warring factions. If a political solution cannot be found, he said, the government will need to use force against the militias. But he said such measures should be undertaken by Iraqi security forces. "This issue is very critical," Dabbagh said. "I do not think the U.S. needs to interfere with this issue. The government should do this by themselves."

Dabbagh said the government is planning to install an inspector general in each ministry to audit its finances. He said a new integrity commission has already been launched to investigate corrupt officials. While Dabbagh said he was not aware if large sums of money had been stolen from the coffers of ministries, he conceded that corruption was a major problem for the government.

Senior U.S. military commanders are urging the government to take faster action against the militias, particularly those that have infiltrated various government ministries.

"There's a political piece to this to see if they deal with these guys," said another senior U.S. military official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity at a separate briefing with reporters. "I won't deny the fact that there is corruption and problems in some of these ministries, but it's got to be dealt with and it ought to be dealt with by the prime minister and the folks that are inside this government. And I think the time is short for them to deal with that over time because this can't go on like that."

"I don't see an open end to this deal, I mean, where this just goes on and on. I think the government, the people will get tired if they don't see any action on this," the U.S. official said.

Sadr and his allies, however, control four government ministries and hold 30 seats in the Iraqi parliament, more than any other faction. He played an instrumental role in propelling Maliki into power in April following several months of Shiite political infighting. For the past two months, thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops have entered some of Baghdad's roughest neighborhoods as part of an operation to quell the sectarian strife. But no major operations have been undertaken in Sadr City, Sadr's stronghold and where his Mahdi Army is in full control.

A third senior U.S. military official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity in a briefing to reporters, similarly questioned the government's resolve to tackle Iraq's myriad problems. "There are still folks who think they can win a sectarian conflict, inside the political parties as well as some guys inside the government," he said. "I think the senior leadership recognizes that that's a failing policy. But getting from sort of the platitude to the reality is the challenge and growth."

He added, "And I'll tell you, the other aspect is, don't assume competency."

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