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Threats Wrapped in Misunderstandings

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 7, 2006

BAGHDAD, Dec. 6 -- The Iraq Study Group's prescriptions hinge on a fragile Iraqi government's ability to achieve national reconciliation and security at a time when the country is fractured along sectarian lines, its security forces are ineffective and competing visions threaten to collapse the state, Iraqi politicians and analysts said Wednesday.

They said the report is a recipe, backed by threats and disincentives, that neither addresses nor understands the complex forces that fuel Iraq's woes. They described it as a strategy largely to help U.S. troops return home and resurrect America's frayed influence in the Middle East.

Iraqis also expressed fear that the report's recommendations, if implemented, could weaken an already besieged government in a country teetering on the edge of civil war.

"It is a report to solve American problems, and not to solve Iraq's problems," said Ayad al-Sammarai, an influential Sunni Muslim politician.

The report arrives at a time of turmoil within the Iraqi government. Senior politicians from Iraq's two major sects, Sunnis and Shiites, have been assassinated or kidnapped in recent weeks. Entire ministries are under the control of sect-based political parties with their own militias.

Three weeks ago, as many as 150 employees were abducted from the Higher Education Ministry, run by a Sunni, by men in police uniforms who said they were from the Interior Ministry, which is controlled by Shiites. And last week, powerful politicians loyal to radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr walked out of the government, and have yet to return.

U.S. diplomats have been urging Iraq's government to engage in a process of national reconciliation aimed at giving Sunnis a greater role, but the Shiite-led administration has been largely unwilling to do so. It is unclear whether increased pressure, as called for by the group led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former representative Lee H. Hamilton, will result in Shiite leaders moving forward with a new power-sharing agreement.

The mistrust and divisions within the weak unity government are so deep that it is not certain whether the study group's recommendations -- such as using outside powers to exert diplomatic pressure and building a well-trained Iraqi army -- can be effective, or might instead deepen the political and sectarian rifts.

"The main obstacle and challenge is the current government," said Wamidh Nadhmi, a political analyst in Baghdad. "The Baker-Hamilton report is insisting on national reconciliation. This has not been done, only in government propaganda."

For months, the Bush administration has pressured the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to take steps toward bringing the warring groups together and tackle Iraq's violent militias and corruption. But the Iraq Study Group recommends withdrawing U.S. support if the Iraqis fail to show advances.

"If the Iraqi government does not make substantial progress toward the achievement of milestones on national reconciliation, security, and governance, the United States should reduce its political, military, or economic support for the Iraqi government," the report's executive summary says.

For some Iraqis, the statement suggested that the report's authors did not grasp, or refused to acknowledge, the diverse ambitions, rivalries and weaknesses that plague the government. The Kurds have dreams of creating an independent state. The Sunnis appear leaderless, yet seek a political voice. The Shiites are riven by feuds. There are disagreements over partitioning Iraq, over whether to restore members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to their old jobs, over whether amnesty should be given to opponents of the government and the U.S. occupation.

Maliki, who controls no militia of his own, also depends on Sadr for political support, making it politically suicidal for him to attempt to dismantle Sadr's Mahdi Army, the largest and most violent militia in Iraq.

"It comes far too close to having the U.S. threaten to take its ball and go home if the Iraqi children do not play the game our way," Anthony Cordesmann, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an e-mailed analysis, referring to possible withdrawal of support.

Some Iraqis expressed astonishment at a recommendation in the report calling for Iraq's National Police and its police commandos, overseen by the Interior Ministry, to be shifted to the control of Defense Ministry, where the commandos would join the army. There is growing evidence that the majority-Shiite police are infiltrated by Shiite militias and death squads.

Iraqis said that although it might appear to make sense to place the commandos under the majority-Shiite army, which has largely escaped militia infiltration, the recommendation could bring unintended consequences. The Interior Ministry is Shiite-controlled, while the Defense Ministry is headed by a Sunni.

"This is an intervention in the Iraqi structure of the state," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish legislator. "This will also be seen as a point for the Sunnis, at the expense of the Shias."

Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq analyst for the International Crisis Group, said such a shift could force the Defense Ministry into an internal policing role that it is not equipped to address. "The more they get dragged into internal policing, they may become sectarianized," Hiltermann said.

"This demand -- no one will execute it," said Hasan Suneid, a legislator and close aide to Maliki. "It's not realistic."

Other challenges face any attempt to implement the report's recommendations. Iraqis have little trust in the army, which is poorly equipped and trained, to provide security. U.S. troops agree with this assessment.

On Friday, a military transition team from the 1st Cavalry Division working with the Iraqi army's 9th Division oversaw a raid in the Fadhil district of central Baghdad. The U.S. military billed it as an Iraqi-led operation all the way. But U.S. soldiers interviewed Saturday said that was not the case.

"Truthfully, they still need training," said Maj. John Best, 34, of Tampa. "Everything that occurred out there had to be led by Americans. They don't have the level of training, the resources, the education, the motivation. They've been fighting so long, they've become complacent."

The U.S. military already has spent the past two years trying to accelerate the training of Iraqi security forces. A central challenge today, according to analysts, is not a lack of American trainers but the question of whether non-sectarian security forces are viable in Iraq: Will a critical mass of Iraqi soldiers remain loyal to the national government as opposed to their respective religious groups?

The issue of having U.S. advisers embedded with Iraqi units could also be difficult. "I wonder whether it will raise Iraqi sensitivities. They may see it as the Americans are ordering them, that they are still the bosses," said Othman. "This is a matter of national pride."

Sadr, who controls 30 seats in Iraq's 275-member parliament and four ministries, is also opposed to the idea. He has demanded a timetable for U.S. withdrawal.

"We don't want to bring any advisers," said Nasar al-Rubaie, the leader of Sadr's legislative bloc. "We are capable to arm our security and military forces. If the Americans withdraw today from Iraq, the next day there will be security in all of Iraq."

The report's recommendation for outside diplomatic pressure is also divisive. One of Maliki's chief rivals, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, who has close ties to Iran, has rejected the proposal for Sunni Arab countries to become more involved in Iraq.

Kurdish leaders are also worried about interference from Turkey, which has vowed to invade Iraq's Kurdish regions if Kurds move toward independence or assert control over the oil field at Kirkuk.

Maliki supports having a regional conference, as long as it is held inside Iraq.

Maliki has rekindled ties with Iran and Syria, but there is still suspicion among Sunni parties, as well as some Shiite groups, of Iran's growing influence in Iraq. And it is unclear whether either Iran or Syria, which the Bush administration views as sponsors of terrorism, would enter into a dialogue with Washington.

"If we can make them part of the solution rather than part of the problem, it will be good for Iraq," said Othman. "But it matters how much they gain from the United States."

Sammarai, the Sunni lawmaker, said the Bush administration has a responsibility to fulfill its pledge to bring democracy to Iraq, in which minorities will have a voice. "Because of their mistakes, it is so complicated now," Sammarai said. "Now, they say, 'We're going to leave the Iraqis to solve their problems.' "

Said Cordesmann: "The U.S. effectively sent a bull in to liberate a china shop, and the Study Group now called upon the U.S. to threaten to remove the bull if the shop doesn't fix the china."

Staff writers Nancy Trejos in Baghdad and Rajiv Chandrasekaran in Washington contributed to this report.

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