By Ernesto Londono
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 10, 2007
BAGHDAD, Feb. 9 -- Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Salam Z. al-Zobaee's cousin has been in government custody for eight months.
He hasn't been charged, Zobaee said, and the formal inquiries he himself has made to have the oil engineer released, or at least get the case before a judge, have been rebuffed.
"He was detained because they looked at him like he didn't belong here," Zobaee said during a recent interview in his spacious office in the fortified Green Zone. "He has been in detention for eight months -- and I am a deputy prime minister."
Zobaee, in principle one of Iraq's most powerful men, offers the anecdote to illustrate his powerlessness, which he says is a product of the Shiite-led government's efforts to cast aside high-ranking Sunnis like him.
Shiite political leaders say Zobaee, one of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's two deputies, deserves his placeholder status.
"He does not deserve power," said Ali al-Adeeb, a Shiite lawmaker and a senior member of Maliki's Dawa party. "His group is accused of committing terrorism, and he always gets himself involved in defending terrorism. We have [Sunni] parties that are participating in the government during the day, but they are working at night cooperating with terrorists."
The marginalization of Zobaee -- who denies being an instigator of violence -- is a prominent example of the strained relationship between Sunni and Shiite leaders, an acrimony that many see as the main obstacle to deterring violence and laying the foundation for reconciliation in Iraq.
"We need, first, reconciliation inside the government," Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of parliament, said in an interview. "They have never sat together to have a sound dialogue to agree on who the enemy is."
Maliki and U.S. military officials say Iraqis are taking the lead role in a security plan to pacify the capital and other parts of the country. But Zobaee, who nominally oversees security affairs, said he has been all but left out of preparations for and implementation of the plan. He said it is foolhardy to put Iraqi officials at the helm.
"If you ask me, 'Do you think the multinational forces can put their faith in the hands of the Iraqi government,' I will answer you: 'No. We don't have the right army.' "
In Zobaee's estimation, Iraq is not even "50 percent" ready to roll out the plan. And he accused the Shiite-dominated government of keeping him out of the loop on matters that should be among his primary responsibilities.
"I don't have any authority," he said during an hour-long interview in which he often sounded exasperated. "And always there are obstacles in our way, and we don't find someone to listen to us."
Zobaee also accused the Interior Ministry, which Maliki oversees, of unduly detaining tens of thousands of Sunnis, some of whom, Zobaee said, have been tortured in detention centers. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been detained in recent years without charges or judicial oversight.
Sunni leaders say the Shiite-led government is only appearing to crack down on Shiite militias -- including the Mahdi Army, which is led by anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr -- in order to appease the United States. But they acknowledge that it does so with trepidation, recognizing the considerable political power of Sadr and other Shiite militia leaders. Sadr is one of Maliki's key backers.
Shiites, on the other hand, say they cannot share details about security operations with Sunni leaders because of fears that the Sunnis will disclose the plans to insurgent groups.
U.S. officials say reconciliation is vital to ending violence in Iraq.
"The only way we will achieve peace and bring real stability in this country is the political process," Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, a senior U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said Wednesday. "And the political process will allow the reconciliation to take place."
The culture of distrust and finger-pointing in the Iraqi government plays out frequently in parliament, where shouting matches are common and sessions often end in walkouts.
Maliki has repeatedly stressed the importance of overcoming sectarian differences.
"Observers will hopefully conclude that the operations are Iraqi ones aimed at achieving a joint goal," he told military commanders in a speech televised Tuesday. "When operations are carried out based on equality and justice, they will be respected by all of the Iraqis and will silence the voices that will allege that a certain operation has targeted this or that sect."
But Maliki himself hasn't always remained above the sectarian fray. During a parliamentary session Jan. 25, he dressed down a Sunni lawmaker who criticized Maliki's security plan.
Abdul Nasser al-Janabi, who belongs to a Sunni bloc that has pressed for a withdrawal of U.S. troops, demanded parliamentary oversight of the security effort.
An irritated Maliki admonished him: "This brother will trust the prime ministry when I bring your file forward and hold you responsible."
Maliki took the most powerful job in the Iraqi government after a coalition of Shiite political parties won the most seats in December 2005 elections.
He had virtually no control over the appointment of his deputies, who were selected based on the number of votes their parties received. Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, a Kurd, chairs a panel that oversees energy and oil policy.
Zobaee, a former university professor and union leader who has a doctorate in agronomy, was given the social services and defense portfolios. The latter in theory gives him oversight of the armed forces.
Maliki kept control of the Ministry of Interior, which oversees the police forces as well as detention facilities not run by the U.S. military.
The sectarian antipathy has made lawmaking an arduous and contentious task, even on issues that don't touch on security.
"It is preventing the parliament from doing anything," said Othman, the Kurdish lawmaker. And instead of curbing sectarian tension, he said, government leaders are exacerbating it. "The problem is with the leadership, the religious leadership and the political leadership. It is preventing the parliament from doing anything."
Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni and speaker of parliament, said the impact of sectarian differences on the political process could be worse.
"Iraq has not been dismembered into three countries," Mashhadani said during a recent roundtable discussion with reporters. "The presence of a united parliament under the same dome amid bombings is a hopeful and encouraging sign."
Special correspondents Saad al-Izzi and Naseer Nouri contributed to this report.