By Robin Wright and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 5, 2006
President Bush yesterday told the leader of Iraq's largest Shiite Muslim party that the United States is not satisfied with the progress in Iraq and appealed for more help in fighting extremism and reconciling the country's increasingly fractured society.
But in a speech after their hour-long meeting, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim countered that U.S. troops need to do more to fight the insurgency and denied that the Shiite militias are fueling the sectarian strife in Iraq. It was one of the starkest criticisms of U.S. military strategy by an Iraqi leader.
"The strikes [the insurgents] are getting from the multinational forces are not hard enough to put an end to their acts, but leave them to stand up again to resume their criminal acts," Hakim said in a speech at the United States Institute of Peace. "This means that there is something wrong in the policies taken to deal with that danger threatening the lives of Iraqis."
The only way to eliminate the danger of a civil war, he added, was through "decisive strikes" against insurgents once loyal to former leader Saddam Hussein. "Otherwise we'll continue to witness massacres . . . against innocent Iraqis."
Hakim, who heads the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, arrived in Washington as the administration is reviewing its strategy in Iraq. The Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), is due to publish its recommendations tomorrow. The meeting also comes as U.S. officials try to repair relations with Shiite leaders who had feared a recent U.S. outreach to Sunni insurgents.
The Bush administration is under pressure from both escalating sectarian strife and plummeting U.S. support for the Iraq war. "We talked about the need to give the government of Iraq more capability as quickly as possible," Bush said in a joint photo opportunity in the Oval Office. "Part of unifying Iraq is for the elected leaders and society leaders to reject the extremists that are trying to stop the advance of this young democracy."
Hakim, who leads the Shiite coalition with the largest number of seats in parliament, told Bush that Iraqi issues should be solved by Iraqis. His words reflected the growing sentiment in both Washington and Baghdad that a shift in responsibility in managing Iraqi affairs is essential if the now multisided conflict is to be halted.
But expressing the frustration that is also rising in Washington, Bush acknowledged in an interview on Fox News yesterday that "what Americans are trying to figure out is why Iraqis are killing Iraqis when you have a better future ahead."
The growing talk of civil war in Iraq "scares us, too," Hakim said in his speech. He expressed concern that Shiite religious authorities, who have calmed tensions after the deadliest suicide bombings, would someday lose their ability to counter the violence. He called the religious authorities the "last fortress" against civil war and "catastrophic storms that no power in the world could calm or control to return Iraq to its senses."
At the White House and in his speech, Hakim signaled rejection of recent suggestions for a regional or international conference to bring Iraq's neighbors together to help defuse escalating tensions and end meddling, particularly by Iran and Syria. "We do not want to distribute shares of powers to neighboring countries," he said in his speech.
Bush and Hakim are unlikely allies in forging Iraq policy. Hakim's movement was founded during his two decades of exile in Iran, and its Badr Organization militia, formerly known as the Badr Brigade, is still widely believed to have close ties to Tehran. Hakim said yesterday that he supports the disbanding of militias, and said his own armed wing has been transformed for use in political activity. But some Sunnis allege that the Badr Organization was behind political assassinations that have contributed to sectarian violence.
White House spokesman Tony Snow called Hakim a "significant force" in Iraqi politics. "He's somebody who can play a very constructive role and we hope he will," Snow said.