Bush To Meet With Head Of Iraq Shiite Party

Bush To Meet With Head Of Iraq Shiite Party
December 2nd, 2006  
Team Infidel

Topic: Bush To Meet With Head Of Iraq Shiite Party

Bush To Meet With Head Of Iraq Shiite Party
New York Times
December 2, 2006
Pg. 7
By David E. Sanger and Edward Wong
WASHINGTON, Dec. 1 — The White House said Friday that President Bush would meet next week with Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of one of the most powerful Shiite parties in Iraq, the latest step in a burst of new administration attempts to try different approaches to bolstering the fragile Iraqi government.
The effort is part of a White House strategy that calls for reaching out to a wider circle of Iraqi politicians to give greater support to the weak government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, and lessen his dependence on Moktada al-Sadr, the anti-American Shiite cleric.
But it immerses Washington even deeper into Baghdad’s byzantine coalition politics, and it risks being interpreted in Baghdad as a sign that Mr. Bush is hedging his bets.
“If you think Maliki may not survive,” said one senior administration official, “you’d want to make sure that the president is talking to the guy who might well form the next government.”
Mr. Hakim heads a party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, that is closely tied to Iran, so much so that just a few years ago, Washington shunned it. The party, usually referred to by its acronym, Sciri, was founded in Iran and its armed wing, the Badr Brigade, fought against Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
The meeting comes at a time when the administration is overhauling its approach to dealing with Iraq’s leadership, though there are arguments over how deeply Washington can involve itself in the politics of a country in such political turmoil. One question is whether to tilt American support more heavily toward the majority Shiite government, rather than the minority Sunnis.
A senior Pentagon official said Friday that the Bush administration was also weighing whether to back away from efforts to reach out to Sunni extremists because the approach had not worked, and was alienating moderate Shiite groups.
But other administration officials insisted in interviews on Friday that they were not abandoning two years of efforts at reconciliation with the Sunnis, including former backers of Saddam Hussein.
Several officials involved in the many-layered internal discussions within the administration described its complex calculations about how to engage the various rivals in Baghdad; their common theme was that the White House needed to preserve its flexibility at a time of great flux in the administration’s policy, but none claimed to have a definitive explanation or would agree to be identified.
On Wednesday, Mr. Bush will receive the report of the Iraq Study Group, which includes a diplomatic strategy that calls on Mr. Bush to reverse policy and deal with the Iranians in an effort to stabilize Iraq. By meeting Mr. Hakim, Mr. Bush has a chance to open a channel to the Iranians and to pre-empt the study group’s criticism that he has been too slow to deal with American rivals in the region. Or, he could try to woo Mr. Hakim away from Tehran.
While administration officials suggested it was Mr. Hakim who sought the meeting, Mr. Hakim’s son, Amar al-Hakim, said in a telephone interview that the invitation came from Mr. Bush. The elder Hakim will discuss the Iraq situation with the president, conduct negotiations and visit Iraqis living in the United States, his son said, but he declined to talk in more detail. When asked whether Mr. Hakim was going to discuss matters related to Iran, with which Mr. Hakim has very close ties, his son said, “They’re only talking about Iraqi matters.”
The announcement of Mr. Hakim’s visit comes as the administration and American commanders are trying to get Mr. Maliki to distance himself from Mr. Sadr, whose militia, the Mahdi Army, has rebelled twice against the Americans and is widening the country’s sectarian rift through the killings of Sunni Arabs.
Mr. Maliki is beholden to Mr. Sadr because he lacks Mr. Hakim’s support. The Maliki-Sadr alliance was forged last spring when the religious Shiite coalition, which dominates the 275-member Parliament, held an internal vote to pick a candidate for prime minister. Mr. Sadr, who controls 30 seats in Parliament, threw his votes behind Mr. Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party, to keep Mr. Hakim’s candidate from the top job. Mr. Sadr and Mr. Hakim are fierce rivals, stretching back to the days when their fathers, both prominent clerics, competed for influence.
Mr. Hakim ceded the fight, mostly because the senior Shiite ayatollahs in Najaf, led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, have stressed the importance of unity to Shiite politicians.
The American reasoning, mentioned last month in a memorandum to Mr. Bush from his national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, was that if Mr. Hakim backed Mr. Maliki, then Mr. Maliki would not need Mr. Sadr. Mr. Hakim and Mr. Sadr, controlling 30 parliamentary seats each, have equal power in the Shiite coalition. While Mr. Hakim’s party is well organized, Mr. Sadr commands much greater popular support.
Though Mr. Hakim may want to undermine Mr. Sadr’s power, there are indications that he still wants his party to hold the position of prime minister, and so he might balk at supporting Mr. Maliki. In a recent interview, Mr. Hakim’s candidate for prime minister, Adel Abdul Mehdi, now a vice president, criticized Mr. Maliki’s soft approach to the problem of the Mahdi Army.
“The government should say they are going to take things into their own hands,” Mr. Abdul Mehdi said. “If it’s not going to, it should say, ‘I am weak,’ ” and, he implied, step aside for another Shiite leader.
American commanders rarely mention Mr. Hakim’s Badr Organization as a threat. In the first couple of years after the American invasion, many Sunni Arabs complained of abductions and killings by both it and the Mahdi Army. These days, the Sunnis and the Americans attribute militia violence almost exclusively to the Mahdi Army. Both Mr. Hakim and the Sunni leaders see Mr. Sadr as the biggest threat right now, and though they distrust each other deeply, they could decide to work together to oust Mr. Sadr.
Next month, President Bush is scheduled to meet with Tariq al-Hashemi, the Sunni Arab vice president and leader of the most powerful Sunni Arab party, a senior administration official said. Mr. Hashemi is a religious conservative and fiercely pro-Sunni. His political group, the Iraqi Islamic Party, often issues reports of atrocities by Shiite militants.
A wild card in any power struggle among the Shiites would be Ayatollah Sistani. The elderly cleric has generally remained silent in recent months, apparently reluctant to involve himself too deeply in the political quagmire of Iraq. But if it looked like a severe Shiite split might take place, the ayatollah could step in and force the parties to make peace.
This week, though, Ayatollah Sistani said nothing when Mr. Sadr withdrew officials loyal to him — 30 parliamentarians and six ministers — from Mr. Maliki’s government. Baha al-Aaraji, a leader of the parliamentarians, said the Sadr officials would not return until Mr. Maliki had wrested more control of Iraqi forces from the Americans and improved basic services. In a news conference after his meeting with Mr. Bush, Mr. Maliki urged the Sadr followers to rejoin the government.
David E. Sanger reported from Washington, and Edward Wong from Baghdad. David S. Cloud contributed reporting from Washington.

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