Global Policy Forum

Political Unity Missing in Iraq


By Robert H. Reid*

Associated Press
July 25, 2006

U.S. plans to add military muscle to curb sectarian violence in Baghdad will achieve only limited success without a political agreement among Iraq's religious and sectarian factions on the future of the country. Such a consensus is what's missing as the generals seek to reposition American and Iraqi troops for a showdown in the streets of the capital.

But military force alone will not bring peace without political progress on such issues as the Sunni insurgency, regional autonomy, distribution of oil wealth and the role of Saddam Hussein's former supporters - all of which contribute to Iraq's instability.

Despite tough talk, there's little sign that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been more successful than his predecessors in moving toward political consensus in Iraq, the most religiously, politically and culturally diverse country in the Middle East.

When al-Maliki took office May 20, several U.S. diplomats and senior military officers said privately it would take four to six months to tell whether the new government could stand on its feet so that the U.S. and its allies could begin withdrawing their troops.

The first two months have not been encouraging. Violence appears on the rise, especially in the religiously and ethnically mixed Baghdad area. About 6,000 Iraqis were killed across Iraq in May and June, according to the United Nations.

That has focused attention on the failures of the security plan for Baghdad, al-Maliki's first major initiative. The plan called for putting tens of thousands of troops and police on the streets, setting up more checkpoints and mounting sweeps in contested areas. The plan is widely seen as a failure. "The security campaign in Baghdad never made clear sense," wrote former Pentagon analyst Anthony Cordesman. "It came before there was a political compromise and real efforts to control and disarm the militias." Without such an agreement, he said, putting more American soldiers on the streets risks "alienating many more Iraqis and discrediting the government."

As a first step toward a political consensus, the government set up a reconciliation committee, but none of the major Sunni Arab insurgent groups has publicly agreed to join. Parliament talks about curbing the militias even though some are controlled by legislators themselves.

In fact, al-Maliki's government of national unity, which includes Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, is united in name only. Everyone says they want peace and stability - but how to achieve that is in dispute. Government declarations promulgated in the U.S.-controlled Green Zone often have little resonance in the rest of the country. "The national unity government is isolated from the people, and this is not good," said Kurdish legislator Mahmoud Othman, a former member of the Iraqi Governing Council. "Groups participating in the government don't agree with each other. There are disagreements in the government and in the parliament. There is no development concerning dialogue and no progress concerning militias."

Those divisions are in some cases profound, and overcoming them will require considerable compromise and statesmanship. For example, al-Maliki and his fellow Shiites say they are willing in principle to offer some form of amnesty to Sunni Arab insurgents - except for those with "Iraqi blood on their hands."

Sunni politicians, including some in top government posts, insist that Iraq's leadership acknowledge a difference between terrorism - the killing of innocent civilians - and "legitimate resistance to foreign occupation," meaning the Americans and their allies. "If we punish a person who killed an American soldier, who is an occupier, we should punish the American soldiers who killed an Iraqi who fought against occupation," parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhandani said last weekend. "In my view, a person who killed Americans in defense of his country, in other countries, they would build a statue to him."

That doesn't sit well with U.S. diplomats and lawmakers who support the need for reconciliation and amnesty - as long as it doesn't apply to anyone who killed Americans. Finding a way to grant amnesty in a war without including anyone who killed anybody would be difficult in the best of cases.

Worse still, there is an atmosphere of mutual distrust among Sunni and Shiite political leaders. Shiite officials privately complain that Sunni figures have intervened to secure the release of suspected Sunni insurgents and death squad members. Sunnis maintain that the police and army are so heavily infiltrated by Shiite extremists that some units are simply extensions of Shiite militias.

Those allegations may be exaggerations. Nevertheless, they reflect the tensions within the Iraqi leadership and represent major obstacles in the way of national unity.

About the Author: Robert H. Reid is correspondent-at-large for The Associated Press and has reported frequently from Iraq since 2003.

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