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Top Iraqis Pull Back From Key U.S. Goal

Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, the most influential Sunni politician in the country, gives presents to children in Baghdad's Yarmouk neighborhood who lost their fathers to sectarian violence.
Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, the most influential Sunni politician in the country, gives presents to children in Baghdad's Yarmouk neighborhood who lost their fathers to sectarian violence. "There is a shortage of goodwill from those parties who are now in the driver's seat of the country," he said. (Pool Photo By Khalid Mohamed Via Getty Images)

"I have started from scratch. I know that," Hashimi said. "This will create a new environment between the Iraqi politicians to talk on sensitive issues face to face in an attempt to alleviate the reciprocal paranoia between the Iraqi sects and ethnic groups."

But Hashimi said he sensed no fundamental willingness from Maliki's government to reconcile with the Sunnis. It has been two months since the largest Sunni coalition walked out of the cabinet when its list of 11 far-reaching demands were not met. Hashimi acknowledges some progress on the demands -- such as a program for releasing prisoners during the holy month of Ramadan -- but calls the steps insufficient.

"Pulling out from the government was not a target, it's just a means, a way to encourage the government to perform in a better way," Hashimi said. "The response of the government has been very, very slow."

Sunni leaders sense that their Shiite counterparts believe the era of Sunni leadership in Iraq is gone for good -- "that Humpty Dumpty had a fall and cannot be put back together again" as one senior Iraqi official put it -- and Sunnis should accept the new reality. Sunni leaders, however, tend to express more limited goals than reclaiming the government.

"I, as deputy prime minister responsible for the portfolio of security and services, until now, have never been consulted on any security operation taking place in Iraq," said Salam Z. al-Zobaee, Iraq's second-highest Sunni official. "The Sunnis, even if they've been participating in the government, are still marginalized in decision-making."

The idea of "reconciliation" in Iraq has always been short on specifics. To Sunnis, it tends to mean Shiites will release their grip on decision-making, allow them greater influence in the government, crack down on militants regardless of their sect and promote peaceful cooperation between politicians. Sunnis demand the release of thousands of prisoners who have never been charged, the purging of all militiamen from the Iraqi security forces and influence in military decisions.

To Shiites, reconciliation is a process fraught with risks that Sunni "supremacists" will attempt to seize their former position of authority over the majority Shiites. Many Shiites believe that reconciliation requires punishing those who, during Saddam Hussein's government, ruthlessly killed and repressed Shiites and Kurds.

"It's clearly perceived by the government that reconciliation is clearly a winner for the Sunnis and not a winner for the Shias," said Brig. Gen. Joseph Anderson, chief of staff for the second-ranking U.S. commander in Iraq. "The question becomes: How do you start balancing that scale a little bit?"

Many Shiites, still aggrieved by the crimes committed against them under Hussein, are not ready for new programs or legislation attempting to force a balance into existence.

"You cannot have reconciliation without justice, and justice has not been accomplished yet in Iraq. They have tried and executed not more than 10 people, Saddam and his people, and that is not enough," a senior Shiite government official said on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. "The same people who were killing Iraqis at the time of Saddam in the name of the state and in the name of national security are doing it now with the insurgents."

Most of the U.S.-backed "benchmarks" for Iraqi political progress -- intended to push along reconciliation -- have so far not been reached. The government has not passed legislation that would govern the country's oil resources or allow former Baath Party members to reclaim government jobs, nor has it completed a review of the constitution or enacted an amnesty program. A recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office judged that only three of 18 benchmarks had been met.

"The polarization of Iraq's major sects and ethnic groups and fighting among Sh'ia factions further diminishes the stability of Iraq's governing coalition and its potential to enact legislation needed for sectarian reconciliation," the report concluded.

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