By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
BAGHDAD, Dec. 19 -- Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has created a two-pronged security plan for Baghdad in which U.S. forces would aggressively target Sunni Arab insurgents instead of Shiite militias. At the same time, Maliki would intensify his efforts to weaken Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and contain his Mahdi Army militia, Iraqi officials said Tuesday.
Under these conditions, Maliki would accept a surge in U.S. troops in Baghdad, according to two Maliki advisers with knowledge of the plan. Maliki plans to discuss his proposal with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and senior U.S. commanders during a meeting in Baghdad on Thursday, the officials said. The Bush administration is contemplating a temporary increase in troops to help stem the highest levels of violence since 2003.
The plan calls for U.S. troops to combat Sunni Arab insurgents for four to eight weeks in outer Baghdad neighborhoods, which Maliki believes are the source of the sectarian violence afflicting the capital, his aides said. Iraqi forces would take over primary responsibility for patrolling inner Baghdad from U.S. forces.
During this period, Maliki would persuade Sadr to stop the Mahdi Army from fomenting violence, using a combination of carrots and sticks, including the threat of force, said the advisers, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters. If the Mahdi Army does not stop its assaults, Maliki, with the help of U.S. troops, would crack down on Sadr.
"Then he has no choice but to attack them and arrest their leaders," said one adviser, who added that the plan's details were still being ironed out. "Sadr is not immune. We all hope it doesn't get to that point, but no one is above the law."
The plan comes as a U.S.-backed coalition of moderate Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties that would isolate Sadr is actively being discussed. Maliki and his Shiite Islamic Dawa Party, concerned that rivals are trying to oust him, have been unenthusiastic about joining such a coalition. Sadr is also Maliki's political benefactor. Maliki's advisers said that he is concerned that any attempts to exclude Sadr from the political process in such a manner could escalate tensions in Iraq. Maliki's security plan, they said, would provide a less risky, alternative way of defusing Sadr.
The plan, if implemented, would become the strongest move by the besieged six-month-old Iraqi government to tackle Sadr, whom Bush administration officials have called the biggest threat to the nation's stability. It also may require Maliki to confront the man upon whom he depends for power, which he has refused to do in the past.
The advisers said if there were military action taken against Sadr, U.S. military involvement would be critical to its success.
They said Maliki has discussed the plan with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq. Khalilzad, Casey, and Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, the top U.S. military spokesman, could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.
The Bush administration's acceptance of Maliki's plan would require a shift in U.S. strategy for taming Baghdad's sectarian violence. U.S. forces are currently concentrated in Baghdad's core in an effort to contain Shiite-Sunni tensions.
U.S. pressure is mounting on Maliki to disarm Shiite militias, which have operated death squads, erected fake checkpoints to abduct and kill Sunnis, and driven thousands of Sunnis from their homes.
But the government's Shiite-dominated security forces under Maliki's control are widely perceived as ineffective, and are mistrusted by Sunnis. Under the plan, that mistrust could deepen: With U.S. troops focusing on Sunni Arab insurgents, Sadr and his forces could solidify their grip in Baghdad.
It is unclear whether Maliki will have the political will to tackle Sadr, whose popularity on the streets is growing.
For months, Maliki has refused to take stern measures against the cleric, preferring a softer political approach. The backing of Sadr, who controls 30 seats in Iraq's 275-member parliament, was decisive in bringing Maliki to power. Maliki has publicly berated U.S. troops for staging raids into the Shiite militia stronghold of Sadr City, arguing that the action harmed efforts to promote reconciliation.
Maliki and other Shiite leaders have long argued that U.S. forces have unfairly targeted Shiite militias, and not focused their efforts on Sunni Arab insurgents. Many Shiites see the militias as their only source of protection.
Maliki and other Shiite leaders also have demanded greater control over Iraq's security forces, a move that Sunni leaders fear could harm their community.
With his plan, Maliki addresses this central Shiite concern. His advisers said he hopes to draw Shiite support away from the Mahdi Army by showing that the government can protect everyday Iraqis and that U.S. forces can be trusted to go after Sunni insurgents.
Maliki, they said, was seeking an Iraqi solution to deal with Sadr, which would help boost the prime minister's credibility among Iraqis.
"The prime minister is not enthusiastic to the idea of increasing American troop levels," said the second adviser. "But if his ideas are incorporated into the security plan he will support this."
"The whole issue now is how to deal with Moqtada Sadr and the Jaish al-Mahdi," said the second adviser, using the Arabic name for the Mahdi Army. "The prime minister does not want a bloodbath to be the price of dealing with the Jaish al-Mahdi."
At the same time, the advisers insisted that Maliki would be firm with Sadr and that his political survival no longer hinged on the cleric. They said Sadr officials had indicated that they would cooperate with the plan if U.S. forces focused their efforts on the Sunni insurgents. "His relationship with Moqtada Sadr has not been very good," said the second adviser. "The prime minister, I can assure you, is not a fan of Moqtada Sadr in any way."