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Deadlocked Sunni, Shiite Factions Block Political Progress, Iraqis Say

By Joshua Partlow and Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 13, 2007

BAGHDAD, July 12 -- Iraqi politicians on Thursday struck a more pessimistic tone about Iraq than did the White House assessment, and said the deadlock between warring Sunni and Shiite factions makes major political progress unlikely in coming months.

Some Iraqi leaders, including members of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's ruling Shiite alliance, added that U.S. officials have set unrealistic goals that the Iraqi government cannot achieve at a time of such instability and violence.

Setting timelines and benchmarks according to Washington's political calendar would be counterproductive to Iraq's success, allowing the government's adversaries to work harder to shatter Iraq's efforts to bring security, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said.

"I was the first to argue: These are not your benchmarks, these are our goals. Why do you make it yours?" Zebari, an ethnic Kurd, said in an interview earlier this week. "I think some of the difficulties we've been through in the past is because we have been held hostage to these timelines. Now, I think the stakes are so high, really, the situation needs to be managed with a bit more care."

The 25-page White House document, an assessment mandated by Congress, outlined what it described as some progress on eight of 18 initiatives, including amending the constitution, forming semiautonomous governing regions and Iraqi support for military operations inside Baghdad. But on some of the most significant benchmarks, such as passing legislation to manage Iraq's oil resources and bringing former Baath Party members back into the political fold, the Iraqi government showed unsatisfactory progress, according to the report.

"The problem is, we are required to push things through because Congress has it on paper," said Haider al-Ebaidi, a Shiite politician from Maliki's Dawa party. "While here, in reality, it is not necessarily right that some of these things should be passed."

Ebaidi said many Shiites view reconciling with former Baathists as "rewarding those people who have been responsible for torturing and killing." Sunnis, on the other hand, say the steps being discussed do not go far enough to bring back civil servants who had little or nothing to do with the repressive policies of ousted president Saddam Hussein.

"The moment they push these things through," he said, "they will divide the government more."

Iraq's oil law, considered by U.S. officials to be a top priority, has yet to be discussed in parliament, despite a May 31 Iraqi deadline. A boycott by Sunni ministers from cabinet meetings has hindered the progress on the law, as have reservations about how Iraq's predominantly Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish regions can share revenue equitably or broker their own contracts with oil companies.

"We have not made enough political progress, whether by presenting the oil law or amending the constitution or the de-Baathification law," said Hachim al-Hassani, a former speaker of parliament and a secular Sunni lawmaker. He said the groups whose political fortunes ascended with the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, particularly Shiites and Kurds, "don't want to give up those gains, they don't want to share the power."

"That's where the problem is," he said. "We can't make any political progress unless we reach some kind of equalization of power between different groups, at least in the transitional period that we're going through."

Hassani said such benchmarks are needed to prod the Iraqi government into action.

"The international players, which are led by the United States, really need to put pressure on the Iraqi political groups so they can reach the agreements that we are talking about," he said. "Otherwise the political groups that have the power right now, there is no reason for them to give up that power unless they feel pressure from international players."

Some Iraqi officials sounded more optimistic about military and security improvements in recent months, including the maturation of the Iraqi army. Ebaidi said that last year Iraq appeared on the brink of civil war, but that he thinks the threat has subsided.

"Now you have more viable Iraqi security forces," he said. "Last year it wasn't imaginable that the Iraqi security forces would fight the Mahdi Army" in southern Iraq, he said, referring to recent clashes between government forces and the Shiite militia loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr.

But Saleem Abdullah, a lawmaker from the leading Sunni faction in parliament, said that the White House report overstated the security improvements.

"We don't count security as how many victims of violence, or how many car bombs, or how many people are killed," he said. "We also have displaced families: How many of them have returned?"

"That's the most important thing, how people are living their daily lives," he said. "That's what would give us a good indicator of progress."

Special correspondent Dalya Hassan contributed to this report.

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