Mideast Skeptics Blast Bush's Iraq Plan

By MAGGIE MICHAEL
The Associated Press
Thursday, January 11, 2007; 3:28 PM

CAIRO, Egypt -- Arabs on Thursday widely predicted the U.S. gamble on a troop increase in Iraq will fail and warned it might only increase sectarian divisions there if American forces and the Iraqi government fail to crack down on Shiite militias.

Some said the U.S. push could turn into a clash between Washington and Iraq's Shiite-led government, if Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki resists U.S. pressure to assault Shiite militias _ particularly the Mahdi Army headed by his most powerful political ally, Muqtada al-Sadr.

"The al-Maliki government might be the first victim of the new strategy," read an editorial of the Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper. "How would such a sectarian government accept liquidating its major base of support _ the al-Sadr group and its militia?"

Arab nations, dominated by Sunni Muslims, have grown increasingly suspicious of al-Maliki's government, believing that it is a pawn of Iran and aims only to establish Shiite control of Iraq, without making concessions to the Sunni minority that ruled under Saddam Hussein.

Al-Maliki has resisted cracking down on the Mahdi Army in the past, but Iraqi officials said he had warned al-Sadr that under the new strategy no armed faction "would escape attack."

President Bush said Wednesday night that he planned to send 21,500 more U.S. forces to Iraq to try to stabilize the country and "hasten the day our troops begin coming home." He also acknowledged making mistakes in earlier security efforts in Baghdad.

But many Arabs saw the increase as a desperate attempt to impose calm that would end in failure.

Bush "is drowning and trying to get out of the Iraqi trap, but he's submerging deeper," said Salem al-Falahat, head of Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood Movement. He warned the U.S. plan "aims to plunge the region into more destruction and bloodshed and leave Iraq with sectarian hatred for many decades to come."

Syria and Iran _ which Bush accused of fueling Iraq's violence _ denounced the new strategy.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said the increase in U.S. troops will "extend insecurity, danger and tension in the country. This will not help to solve Iraq's problems."

The Arab world has been deeply conflicted over the U.S. military presence in Iraq. Governments and residents of the region overwhelmingly opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion and blame the toppling of Saddam for unleashing the chaos that now wracks the country.

Many want the Americans to pull out, accusing them of fueling the bloodshed. But at the same time, some Arab governments fear a U.S. withdrawal will throw Iraq into civil war and allow mainly Shiite Iran to dominate.

Brig. Hossam Sweilem, an Egyptian military expert, said a complete U.S. withdrawal would lead to open warfare between Iraq's factions. But he also said the chance for success for the new White House plan was "very slim" because it relies on help from al-Maliki's government and security forces.

Mustafa al-Ani, a military analyst with the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, said the American military has to confront the Shiite militias _ particularly al-Sadr's powerful Mahdi Army. Otherwise, the U.S. will lose any support among Iraq's Sunnis.

"They need to use the same force against the Mahdi Army as they do against al-Qaida," he said. "They need to establish new credibility and they must be evenhanded."

American forces, he said, must begin on "day one" to sweep Sadr City, a Shiite slum in Baghdad and stronghold of the Mahdi Army, as aggressively as they patrol the Sunni militant enclaves of Ramadi and Fallujah.

"Otherwise," he said, "I don't see any chances for success."

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Associated Press writers from around the Middle East contributed to this report.


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