Gates Presses Iraq Premier On Healing Sectarian Divide

Gates Presses Iraq Premier On Healing Sectarian Divide
April 20th, 2007  
Team Infidel

Topic: Gates Presses Iraq Premier On Healing Sectarian Divide

Gates Presses Iraq Premier On Healing Sectarian Divide
New York Times
April 20, 2007
Pg. 12

By David S. Cloud, Alissa J. Rubin and Edward Wong
BAGHDAD, April 19 — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates arrived here on Thursday intending to press Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq to move faster on Sunni-Shiite reconciliation at a moment when Mr. Maliki’s ability to deliver appears limited, at best.
Mr. Gates told reporters he would press the government to pass laws on oil revenue sharing and rolling back purges of Sunni Arabs from the government.
But the visit is more likely to bring into focus the starkly different political realities that drive the two governments. Driving the American timetable are the bipartisan push in Congress to put limits on the American commitment in Iraq, the promise that the increase in American troops would only last a few months and the 2008 presidential campaign, which will accelerate after Labor Day.
Driving Mr. Maliki are divisive ethnic and sectarian forces in his own government as well as a tenacious Sunni Arab insurgency.
The result is that the American and Iraqi governments appear to be almost talking past each other.
The Maliki government has been thrown into turmoil by the resignation of six cabinet ministers loyal to Moktada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric who was Mr. Maliki’s strongest political backer. The series of car bombs planted by Sunni insurgents that killed nearly 200 Iraqis on Wednesday made it far harder for Mr. Maliki to encourage his Shiite constituents to pursue reconciliation with Sunnis. And the Sunni Arab insurgency the Americans are pushing Mr. Maliki to negotiate with remains fragmented, without a single bargaining position.
The Americans, along with moderate Iraqi politicians, believe that the key to peace in Iraq and ultimately to an American withdrawal is real power-sharing between Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds. But each group is reluctant to make any compromise that might reduce its leverage.
“The political track has yet to gain traction,” said Barham Salih, a deputy prime minister from Kurdistan. “We need a grand bargain among Iraqis to establish a sustainable and balanced power sharing arrangement. We thought that the Constitution would do it, but it did not.”
“There is no way that Iraq’s predicament will be fixed by August, but I think it’s fair for the people of Iraq and for our allies in the United States to expect some demonstrable progress by then,” he added.
Mr. Gates told reporters traveling with him that he planned to warn the Maliki government in a meeting on Friday that the American military buildup was not open-ended.
“I’m sympathetic to some of the challenges they face” but “the clock is ticking,” he said, adding, “Frankly, I would like to see faster progress” on “getting some of these laws enacted.”
President Bush, who was speaking at a town hall-style meeting in Tipp City, Ohio, echoed those sentiments. “The Iraqi government has a lot of work to do to convince skeptical nations that they are going to be a pluralistic society,” he said.
The American list of must-haves includes two pieces of legislation in addition to the oil law and the rollback of de-Baathification: a rewriting of how powers are divided between the regions and central government in the Constitution and setting a date for provincial elections.
A political adviser to Mr. Maliki said the prime minister lacked the power to push those through no matter how much pressure the Americans put on him. “These matters should be approved by the Council of Representatives, not by the government,” said Sadiq al-Rikabi, using the official name of the Iraqi Parliament. “The government just puts forward the drafts. The cabinet can encourage the Council of Representatives to accelerate to approve these laws. Otherwise, the prime minister does not have any authority to approve these laws.”
Mr. Rikabi said Mr. Maliki relied on cooperation from the various political blocs, and that the cooperation “differs from one bloc to another, and from one issue to another.”
The problem is that Parliament operates effectively by consensus and is made up of different ethnic and sectarian groups that disagree sharply on major issues. Mr. Maliki belongs to a religious Shiite bloc led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a cleric who does not serve in Parliament. Mr. Maliki wields limited power within his bloc and relies on support from often feuding Shiite factions.
Mr. Maliki’s Shiite ranks include hard-line members reluctant to share any power with Sunni Arabs as well as factions that are divided among themselves on some crucial policies, such as whether to allow provinces to form semiautonomous regions.
But each sect claims the mantle of victim. “The Shias are still oppressed, they need support,” said Sheik Humam Hamoudi, the chairman of the International Affairs Committee in Parliament and a member of Mr. Hakim’s party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
But Tariq al-Hashimi, one of the vice presidents and the leader of the leading Sunni Arab group, the Iraqi Islamic Party, insists that Sunnis are the victims. “It’s only Sunnis that have been marginalized.” he said. “The dialogue is between Shia and Kurds, the Sunni representatives have been left in the shadows.”
Mr. Maliki has taken some risks. He has tested Shiite loyalties by pressing forward with negotiations with some insurgent groups in the hope of stemming the violence aimed at Shiite communities.
His government has met with representatives of several militant groups. The greatest success so far is that in Anbar Province and now in Diyala, it appears that some indigenous Iraqi insurgent groups are breaking away and actually battling Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. But banding together against a common enemy has not yet added up to a truce with the government.
“At the moment the government is essentially in the very early stages of negotiating with the insurgents,” said a Western diplomat who follows the negotiations. “Both sides want to talk, which is good. The next step is what can both sides offer the other.”
It is also unclear what role Sadr supporters will play in Mr. Maliki’s government. Some of Mr. Maliki’s aides said that the withdrawal of the six ministers loyal to Mr. Sadr would free the prime minister to find more effective people to run the ministries, which have been notoriously troubled by corruption, sectarianism and inefficiency. But the withdrawal could also mean Mr. Sadr has much less of a stake in the mainstream politics of the country.
Mr. Sadr’s militia rebelled twice against the Iraqi government and American military in 2004, when he was shut out of the political process. The Mahdi Army remains a potent force, and the Americans had been hoping that Mr. Sadr’s investment in the political process would help rein him in.
Mr. Sadr has cannily kept his 30 legislators inside the Parliament to ensure he has his say on de-Baathification, the Constitution and other policies, allowing him to play the role of spoiler. “We want to stay on the opposing side inside the Parliament,” said Abdul Mehdi Mutairi, a top Sadr political officer.
Whatever frustrations Bush administration officials have with Mr. Maliki, though, they appear reconciled that he is the leader they must deal with.
In January, when the Bush administration announced it was sending more troops to Iraq, officials including Mr. Gates declared that Mr. Maliki finally understood, after months of delay, that he needed to advance reconciliation efforts or face consequences, including possible cancellation of the troop deployments. Those threats are no longer being made by administration officials, despite the lack of Iraqi action.
A senior American official in Baghdad said that although the Iraqi political landscape was more fractured than ever, the Americans had no option but to support Mr. Maliki and keep pushing for meaningful power-sharing agreements. There is no other political figure who can replace Mr. Maliki at this time, he said. Every few weeks, some Iraqi politicians talk of forming an alternative political bloc in Parliament, but the chances of that actually happening are next to zero, he said.
Mr. Gates went out of his way not to blame Mr. Maliki for the slow progress, but insisted that the Iraqi government as a whole had to be responsive. “I think that when the Iraqis have made these commitments I think they have the intent to carry them out. I think they have lacked the capacity,” he said.
On Thursday, a suicide car bomber killed at least six people and wounded 31 others in the Jadriya neighborhood. At least 10 people were killed in other violence around the country, and at least 20 bodies were found in Baghdad.
Police officials in Salahuddin Province said at least six more people were killed in an ambush on Wednesday.

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