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.
"It's not bad, but it could be good, if it was real," he said. "I apologize for my enthusiasm," he added with evident sarcasm. "But he who is to be beaten with sticks does not like the one who fashions the sticks."
To the artists and writers drinking the anise-flavored liquor called arak under the fruit trees outside the Dialogue Gallery, Bush's pledge of progress carried about as much weight as the paper in Abdul Hamid's hands.
The gallery owner, Qasim Sabti, said he agreed with many of the goals Bush espoused: amending the constitution, disbanding the militias, giving Sunnis an equitable role.
"In my opinion, disbanding the militias and the entire American plan -- it might fail for one particular reason," Sabti said. "The militias are actually the Ministry of Interior itself. And the national guards are infiltrated by other militias. So the most basic, the most important, pillars on which the plan is based, I think they will fall."
Sabti said Iraq has reached the disturbing state where many people feel more comfortable at the sight of American soldiers, considered an occupying army, than of their own government's police officers.
Maliki's advisers said Bush's remarks aligned with many of their own goals, such as targeting extremists regardless of their sect, passing laws to share oil revenue among the country's disparate regions, easing the guidelines that purged thousands of members of Hussein's Baath Party from their jobs after the U.S.-led invasion, and holding provincial elections.
Abdul Mahdi, the Shiite vice president, who is not in Maliki's party, said arranging provincial elections was no small matter. "They have not been discussed up to now," he said. "It depends on constitutional amendments -- and making big changes. It will not be easy to have elections without those changes."
But Mariam Rayis, a foreign affairs adviser to Maliki, said the Iraqi government "must mobilize all its energies to make its security plan a success."
Rayis said she had "reservations" about Bush's remarks regarding Iran and Syria. In his address, Bush said, "These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq," and he vowed to disrupt their efforts to influence Iraq.
"They are regional states," Rayis said. "There is a sense that opening up a dialogue with those states would offer a better chance of reaching an agreement instead of taking hard-line policies toward them."
Maliki was initially wary of bringing in more U.S. troops, especially if they were intended simply to magnify a force that had failed to slow the sectarian killing, according to an Iraqi government official close to Maliki who spoke on condition of anonymity. But the prime minister now supports the influx of U.S. forces, the official said.
"It was after reaching some sort of agreement with the American side that these American troops would be tackling the areas where terrorists are planning their attacks," namely the Sunni insurgent strongholds on the outskirts of Baghdad, the official said.
Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the No. 2 American commander in Iraq, said this week that U.S. troops would start operating in Baghdad's core and then move to the periphery over a matter of months, but he denied that this approach was intended to target one sect over the other.
Wright reported from Washington. Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington and special correspondent Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad contributed to this report.