Bush's Shift in Strategy Gets Dubious Reception On Streets of Baghdad

Men in Basra, southern Iraq, watch a broadcast of the speech in which President Bush announced a surge in the U.S. military commitment.
Men in Basra, southern Iraq, watch a broadcast of the speech in which President Bush announced a surge in the U.S. military commitment. (By Nabil Al-jurani -- Associated Press)
By Joshua Partlow and Robin Wright
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 12, 2007

BAGHDAD, Jan. 11 -- From the men drinking lemon tea in cafes to the politicians fighting to strengthen their fledgling government, Baghdad residents greeted President Bush's announcement of a shift in Iraq strategy with a skepticism born of nearly four years of war.

To many, the crux of Iraq's intractable problem is whether the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki -- installed as Shiite Muslims were emerging from oppression under Saddam Hussein to become the country's ruling majority -- can rise above deep sectarian rivalry and protect Iraqi neighborhoods equitably, even in the face of catastrophic insurgent attacks by Sunni Arabs.

"The main reason for what's taking place in Iraq is the settlement of historical paybacks," said Faiz Botros, 50, an Iraqi Christian sitting at a sidewalk table Thursday as car horns blared along a street in central Baghdad. "Neither 20,000 soldiers, nor 100,000, nor hundreds of thousands, will change anything. In Iraq, the politicians are still living in a mentality from 1,400 years ago. And this is the disaster of Iraq."

In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned that the Iraqi leader needed to show progress quickly. "I have met Prime Minister Maliki," she said Thursday at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "I saw his resolve. I think he knows that his government is, in a sense, on borrowed time, not just in terms of the American people but in terms of the Iraqi people."

Iraqi leaders said they would rise to the challenge.

"This is not a one-party decision," Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi said. "It doesn't depend on Maliki or the UIA" -- a reference to the dominant Shiite coalition in the parliament -- "or the Shia or the Sunnis alone. It depends on all parties and how convinced they are they want to live together. This is a process and it is historical work. Some have illusions they can gain power again. Others want to impose their ways."

"Americans cannot deliver for Iraq," added Barham Salih, a deputy prime minister. "Iraqis have to deliver for themselves."

One senior Shiite politician, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, phrased what he called the country's "million-dollar question" this way: Will Maliki continue to allow the powerful Mahdi Army militia, led by his political supporter Moqtada al-Sadr, to act as the local embodiment of the law in mainly Shiite neighborhoods such as Baghdad's Sadr City?

"There's a lot of pressure coming from his surroundings not to take serious action. He wants really to take serious steps," the politician said of the prime minister.

"If Maliki doesn't deliver on that one, our commitment to the rule of law is questioned," another senior Iraqi politician said, also on condition of anonymity. "Iraq over the past year has moved from bad to worse. The time has come for the trend to be reversed; otherwise the government will forfeit its right to govern Iraq."

"How could you ask someone who is sectarian to act against sectarianism?" asked Saleh al-Mutlak, leader of a secular Sunni party in parliament, referring to Maliki, who is a leader of the Shiite Dawa party. "This government will never fight sectarianism. It's only a waste of time, a waste of human resources -- human beings -- and a waste of money."

Outside a Baghdad courtyard Thursday, the crack of gunshots sounded close enough to matter. Inside the stone walls, Hassan Abdul Hamid, a poet, kept his eyes on the Arabic script of his two-page printout of Bush's Iraq strategy speech.

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