U.S. Pressure

Baghdad's Fissures and Mistrust Keep Political Goals Out of Reach

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By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 26, 2007

BAGHDAD, April 25 -- U.S. military commanders say a key goal of the ongoing security offensive is to buy time for Iraq's leaders to reach political benchmarks that can unite its fractured coalition government and persuade insurgents to stop fighting.

But in pressuring the Iraqis to speed up, U.S. officials are encountering a variety of hurdles: The parliament is riven by personality and sect, and some politicians are abandoning Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government. There is deep mistrust of U.S. intentions, especially among Shiites who see American efforts to bring Sunnis into the political process as an attempt to weaken the Shiites' grip on power.

Many Iraqi politicians view the U.S. pressure as bullying that reminds them they are under occupation. And the security offensive, bolstered by additional U.S. forces, has failed to stop the violence that is widening the sectarian divide.

"The Americans should take into consideration the Iraqi situation and its complications, not just their own internal politics," said Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish legislator.

Ten weeks into the security plan, even as U.S. lawmakers propose timelines for a U.S. troop withdrawal, there has been little or no progress in achieving three key political benchmarks set by the Bush administration: new laws governing the sharing of Iraq's oil resources and allowing many former members of the banned Baath Party to return to their jobs, and amendments to Iraq's constitution. As divisions widen, a bitter, prolonged legislative struggle is hindering prospects for political reconciliation.

"They are all up in the air," said Ahmed Chalabi, a secular Shiite who is chairman of Iraq's Supreme National Commission for De-Baathification. "They are certainly not going to be produced in any timetable that is acceptable within the context of the current political climate in the United States."

Other benchmarks such as provincial elections, a political agreement on dismantling militias and a program for reconciliation announced last July also have not moved forward, Iraqi officials said.

Iraqi politicians across the sectarian spectrum said their political process is being hijacked by American domestic politics. Pressured by congressional Democrats and growing antiwar sentiment at home, senior U.S. officials are growing impatient.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, visiting Iraq last week, declared that the "clock is ticking" for political progress. He urged Iraq's parliament not to take a scheduled two-month recess and to pass by the end of summer both an oil law and a proposal to reverse the de-Baathification law.

Even if compromises are reached on the three benchmarks, it is unlikely the final legislation will resemble anything close to the Bush administration's blueprint. Maliki's aides are already stressing that they cannot control how the divided 275-member parliament will react to the proposals.

"When the Americans give orders, people will be more against it," Othman said. "That's what the Americans don't understand."


In February, Iraq's cabinet passed a U.S.-backed draft law that would give the central government control over Iraq's oil reserves, the third largest in the world. President Bush and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a presidential contender, cited it as a sign of political progress.

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