Maliki's Impact Blunted By Own Party's Fears

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki confers from Iraq with President Bush and other officials at the White House this week. (By Eric Draper -- White House Via Getty Images)
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 3, 2007

BAGHDAD -- As the U.S. military attempts to pacify Iraq so its leaders can pursue political reconciliation, Iraqi and Western observers say Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his inner circle appear increasingly unable to pull the government out of its paralysis.

At times consumed by conspiracy theories, Maliki and his Dawa party elite operate much as they did when they plotted to overthrow Saddam Hussein -- covertly and concerned more about their community's survival than with building consensus among Iraq's warring groups, say Iraqi politicians and analysts and Western diplomats.

In recent weeks, those suspicions have deepened as U.S. military commanders have begun to work with Sunni insurgents, longtime foes of the Shiite-led government, who have agreed to battle the group al-Qaeda in Iraq.

"The level of mutual trust is so low that you really have to not just rebuild trust, you have to build trust in the first place, and that is still very much a work in progress right now," said Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, the top U.N. envoy to Iraq.

The prime minister's close aides counter that Maliki can lead and that party leaders are committed to building a broad-based government.

"The Dawa party has no special request that Maliki must listen to us," said Hassan Suneid, a Dawa legislator and close adviser to the prime minister. "We do not want to impose a government different than what everybody else wants. Trust me, the Dawa party is the one who pushes Maliki to be open-minded to other voices."

There are many reasons for Iraq's political stagnation. In the fifth year of war, Iraq's politicians remain more loyal to their sect, clan, tribe and region than they are to the nation. A culture of fear, inherited from Hussein's reign, remains entrenched.

"Some of the coterie of Maliki fear their friends more than they fear their enemies," said Ahmed Chalabi, a Shiite who heads Iraq's Supreme National Commission for De-Baathification. "You can't separate people from their backgrounds. Most of them were used to secret-society politics, not open politics."

The mistrust has deep roots. For decades, the Dawa party, through a secretive, cell-based structure, waged an underground resistance to Hussein's government, including at least one assassination attempt. Hussein suppressed the movement, whose goal was to turn secular Iraq into an Islamic state ruled by its Shiite majority. Thousands were executed or chased into exile. Maliki, sentenced to death, fled to Syria in 1980. In the vacuum created by the U.S.-led invasion, the Dawa party reemerged as a potent force in the rivalry to forge a new Iraq.

But Dawa members and other Shiites remained suspicious of the motives of the United States and the Sunnis, partly because of the Shiites' history of being oppressed and betrayed, including what they viewed as an American failure to back a Shiite uprising after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

"There is not a single Iraqi who is not affected by the recent history of Iraq," said Qazi, the U.N. envoy. "And all of these things make governance extremely difficult for anyone."

In January 2005, the United Iraqi Alliance won the elections, ushering in Shiite power. After the Bush administration, along with Kurdish and Sunni leaders, opposed Dawa party leader Ibrahim al-Jafari, Maliki became the compromise prime minister.

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