U.S. Says Violence Is Meant To Topple Iraqi Government

Members of the Iraq Study Group  --  from left, Leon Panetta, William Perry, Edwin Meese, Charles Robb, group aide Chris Kojm and Sandra Day O'Connor  --  leave the White House after meeting with President Bush on Monday.
Members of the Iraq Study Group -- from left, Leon Panetta, William Perry, Edwin Meese, Charles Robb, group aide Chris Kojm and Sandra Day O'Connor -- leave the White House after meeting with President Bush on Monday. (By Gerald Herbert -- Associated Press)
By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Bush administration charged yesterday that the escalating violence in Iraq committed by both Shiites and Sunnis over the past two days is a "brazen effort" to bring down the fragile government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The White House also said President Bush has no intention of backing out of talks next week with the Iraqi leader, despite threats yesterday from a powerful Shiite militia to pull out of the government if Maliki goes ahead with the meeting. The talks, set for Thursday in Amman, Jordan, have suddenly taken on the air of a crisis summit, as Iraq slides closer to all-out civil war.

The latest attacks, including six car-bomb attacks on Shiite targets in Baghdad on Thursday and retaliatory strikes on Sunni targets yesterday, killed more than 200 people in the deadliest wave of violence since the U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq in 2003.

Rumors of yesterday's atrocities included one report of six Sunni men who emerged from services at a Baghdad mosque and were doused with kerosene and burned alive. But two Baghdad imams, in an interview, denied that the incident took place.

"These ruthless acts of violence are deplorable," White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said. "It is an outrage that these terrorists are targeting innocents in a brazen effort to topple a democratically elected government. These killers will not succeed.

"Securing Baghdad and gaining control of the violent situation will be a priority agenda item when President Bush meets with Prime Minister al-Maliki in just a few days."

In a major shift, much of the recent violence has come from militias linked to parties in Iraq's government and from death squads with ties to government agencies. The trend is important because a common benchmark in the slide from strife to civil war is the government falling apart and factions within it fighting each other.

"Iraq is breaking down, not breaking up" into pieces, said Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The ferocity of the latest attacks complicates the prospects of major progress at the talks in Amman, U.S. experts warned.

"This summit is an act of desperation. The White House doesn't know what it can do," said David Rothkopf, a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace fellow and the author of "Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power." "The situation is deteriorating more rapidly than anyone anticipated and to an unending depth.

"I don't think, in modern American history, there is another example of such egregious failure of policy and execution. We're really seeing something unprecedented here. Even Vietnam was a slower decline, and the military forces were more in balance. . . . I don't know anyone who thinks there is an outcome in Iraq now that is hopeful."

The crisis atmosphere deepened in Iraq yesterday when followers of radical Shiite militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr pledged to walk out of parliament and Maliki's cabinet if the prime minister attends the Jordan summit. Sadr's powerful political bloc has 30 members in Iraq's new parliament. It was also pivotal in backing Maliki as prime minister during heated months-long debate over the new government.

The Bush administration has been increasingly frustrated by Maliki's leadership, particularly his inability or unwillingness to rein in fellow Shiites, including militias such as Sadr's. But the White House has limited alternatives because the Iraqi leader was democratically selected and the next election is not due until 2009. Maliki is, for now, the only political game in town.

And any U.S. exit strategy will rely on accelerating the transfer of security responsibilities to Iraqi forces under Maliki's control.

Maliki faces his own constraints. He needs to maintain his own power base to bring the Shiites along for reconciliation efforts with the Sunni minority, experts said, adding that, to be credible at home, he also has to keep a certain distance from Bush.

Bush is "in a very tight spot," said Henri Barkey, a Lehigh University professor who was a State Department policy-planning expert on Iraq. "He now has to strike a balance between three conflicting constituencies. He has to show respect for Maliki, that he is an independent actor and not a stooge. But he also has to worry about his own priorities. At the same time, the Democrats are increasingly breathing down his neck about withdrawal.

"The drumroll for withdrawal is only going to get stronger in January."

Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.

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