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.
Since then, frustration has grown over Maliki's leadership, both in Iraq and in Washington. The government has failed to pass so-called benchmark laws the Bush administration sees as pivotal to political reconciliation. They include laws to tap Iraq's oil wealth equitably and reintegrate former members of Hussein's Baath Party into the government, as well as power-sharing constitutional reforms to appease Sunnis.
Last month, Maliki announced that the cabinet had approved oil legislation and would forward it to parliament. But the next day, Sunnis and Kurds opposed it. Kurdish politicians charged that unauthorized changes had been made to the legislation. For many, the episode was another example of secretive decision-making in Maliki's government.
Maliki's critics say a key reason for Iraq's political woes is his reliance on Dawa party stalwarts selected more for loyalty than political experience. "The problem is none of them have any sense of governance and how a government should function and run," said a senior Iraqi official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he works closely with Maliki. "They are mixing running a political party and running the government. They don't see the whole government as their government, only the people who they task, the people who they deputize."
Some Dawa party figures concede they are inexperienced. "None of us have run a government before," said Haider al-Abadi, an influential Dawa legislator. "We cannot deliver miracles."
He and other Dawa politicians insist that others are responsible for the government's difficulties. "There are always people inside the government and people outside who want to give the perception that the government is weak and it is about to fall," Abadi said.
Abadi, a British-trained engineer who returned to Iraq after 27 years and served as telecommunications minister, said rumors of a governmental collapse are being spread by "some enemies within the U.S. establishment."
"Some special intelligence units," he explained, his voice lowering during an interview at a coffee shop in the U.S.-protected Green Zone. "They have their own plan. That's what frightens us. People want to wreck the whole thing without any alternative."
Maliki, observers say, is trying to compensate for his party's frail position against his Shiite rivals. Unlike influential Shiite clerics Moqtada al-Sadr or Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the Dawa party controls no militia and has a small grass-roots following today.
"He's trying to strengthen the Dawa party at the risk of marginalizing other political groups," said Wamidh Nadhmi, a political analyst.
Maliki has accused Arab research centers and media of waging "a conspiracy against Iraq" by portraying insurgents as Islamic freedom fighters. Nadhmi said Hussein, too, began to suspect conspiracies, especially as he grew isolated by the international community.
"Many people see some similarities between Maliki and the late Saddam, except he's much weaker than Saddam Hussein," Nadhmi said. "People feel he's in power because he's backed by American tanks. Others say the Dawa party is not popular enough to win elections on their own."
The reliance on Dawa members has helped fuel accusations that Maliki favors Shiites at the expense of Iraq's minorities, particularly Sunnis. In recent months, Maliki has visited or given aid to Shiite victims of bombings, while Sunni areas have been largely neglected. U.S. military commanders, too, have expressed frustration at what they see as the sectarian nature of Maliki's office.
Maliki and his advisers are already mistrustful of new U.S. alliances with Sunni insurgents and tribal leaders who have turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq. Where the Bush administration sees a success story, Maliki and other Shiites worry that the United States is empowering groups still determined to overthrow their government.
"The policy of the American forces is to fight al-Qaeda even if they work with the Devil themselves," Suneid said. "These insurgents will become militias in the future. If they don't trust the government, then we should not arm them."
"Are we bringing the Baathists back?" said Abadi, referring to members of Hussein's now-disbanded party. "We don't want to get rid of al-Qaeda and replace them by other criminals."
Maliki is also losing some Shiite support. Earlier this year, the Fadhila Party withdrew its 15 members from his coalition. Followers of Sadr, Maliki's political benefactor, quit the cabinet and last month withdrew from parliament. Tensions were so high that senior Sadr leaders were publicly declaring that Maliki's government was nearing collapse. The Sadrists ended their boycott after Maliki promised to rebuild a Shiite shrine in Samarra, damaged in a recent bombing.
"The Dawa is looking after Dawa interests," said a Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because he works closely with the government. "Other Shiite parties are equally troubled by Maliki and Dawa."
Chalabi described Maliki as a capable leader but said, "The prime minister's office is dominated by party people, and others find it difficult to break through. That needs to change."
The top Sunni bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front, has largely withdrawn from the government over frustrations with Maliki's leadership. Last month the Shiite-dominated parliament voted to oust Sunni speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani because of his fiery behavior, prompting an initial pullout. The Sunnis were further enraged by an arrest warrant for the Sunni culture minister, who is accused of responsibility for an assassination attempt against another Sunni legislator.
"Upsetting them now is not in the government's interests, because you are working towards a bigger goal," the senior Iraqi official said at the time, referring to Sunni legislators. "You don't need it, even if it is a legal issue."
Suneid disagreed. He said that Maliki cannot control the actions of parliament and that the warrant was a judicial matter. It was Dawa and other alliance members, he added, who persuaded the Sunnis to return to parliament last month.
But the Accordance Front bolted again Wednesday, leaving only the Sunni vice president and one of six cabinet members in place, and said Maliki had failed to release detainees who Sunni leaders say are unjustly imprisoned, remove militia members from the police force and meet other demands.
On the streets, Maliki and his government are becoming less relevant. Abdul Amir Ali is a Shiite shopkeeper in Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood and a Dawa party member. In an interview seven months ago, he brimmed with praise for Maliki.
Ali's allegiance is fraying. He struggles with electricity shortages, poor medical care and high fuel costs that have steadily worsened this year. Karrada, once considered a safe area, has become a magnet for suicide bombers and mortar attacks.
"Those who came to lead are only now learning the alphabets of leadership. They know how to wage a resistance, but to lead the country? This is difficult for them," said Ali, seated inside his sweltering shop last month.
He hasn't completely lost faith in Maliki, but Ali said he had expected his life to improve. "Now, it is as if Maliki doesn't exist. All parties are working for themselves," he said.