Doubts Grow Over Iraq's Prime Minister

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Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki speaks during a press conference held in Baghdad's Green Zone, October 25, 2006.

Does Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki have the political spine to deal with Iraq's No. 1 problem — the Shi'ite militias? There's a growing suspicion in Baghdad that he does not. Having promised, for the umpteenth time, to crack down on the sectarian death squads wreaking havoc on the Iraqi capital, the prime minister promptly turned around and castigated U.S. forces for doing precisely that. The Iraqi leader claimed that a predawn raid Wednesday on a militia stronghold by U.S. and Iraqi soldiers had been conducted without his approval, and said such attacks would not be repeated.

A U.S. military statement said the raid was directed at a "top illegal armed group commander directing widespread death squad activity throughout eastern Baghdad." At least 4 people were killed and 20 injured in the raid, which included air strikes from U.S. aircraft. It is unclear whether the targeted militia leader was captured. Although the U.S. said Iraqi special forces played the lead role in the raid, al-Maliki claimed the Iraqi government had not been consulted.

Passing the Buck in Baghdad

AUDIO: The Iraqi prime minister has shown once again that he is not willing to crack down seriously on the Shi'ite militias - which means U.S. and Iraqi soldiers are wasting their time and risking their lives

For the beleaguered residents of Baghdad, this has become a familiar Green Zone farce. Beholden to the very militias he has vowed to crush, the increasingly hamstrung prime minister has forced U.S. troops guarding the city to don kid gloves when dealing with the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to the radical Shi'ite leader Moqtada al-Sadr, which has been blamed for much of the sectarian violence that kills an average of 100 Iraqis a day. And there is palpable frustration among U.S. soldiers patrolling the streets of Baghdad that every time they strike against the Mahdi Army, they are publicly scolded by the Iraqi prime minister. "Every time he does one of these about-turns, he makes the Madhi Army stronger and the government weaker," says a Western diplomat in Baghdad. "And of course, it drives the [Americans] up the wall."

Moqtada al-Sadr commands enough seats in the Iraqi parliament to topple the prime minister, which is what makes his Mahdi Army untouchable. Still, few in Baghdad doubt that the Mahdi Army is conducting a campaign of organized violence against Iraq's Sunnis. TIME has uncovered evidence of a Mahdi Army program of ethnic cleansing designed to drive Sunnis out of mixed neighborhoods. As a member of a Shi'ite Islamist party himself, al-Maliki dares not incur the wrath of his own community. The last Iraqi leader who tried to face down al-Sadr, former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, paid a heavy political price — in two general elections following his authorization of U.S. forces to smash the Mahdi Army in the summer of 2004, Allawi has been soundly defeated. That cautionary tale is not lost on al-Maliki.

So, rather than directly confront the Shi'ite militias, the prime minister tends to deflect the blame for the sectarian violence toward Sunni terrorist organizations. He did it again Wednesday, saying: "The root of the bloody cycle that we are undergoing is the presence of terror organizations that have arrived in the country."

Nor was the prime minister in any mood to placate his critics. In addition to criticizing the U.S. military, al-Maliki on Wednesday also publicly slapped down U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. He dismissed suggestions — made a day earlier by Khalilzad — that Iraqi political parties had agreed to timetables for dealing with the violence. "No one has the right to impose a timetable" on the Iraqi government, he said.

He suggested Khalilzad's statement was motivated by political considerations that had more to do with the American midterm elections due next month than any real deal. " We are not much concerned with it, " he said. The defiance plays well with al-Maliki's political allies: al-Sadr and other Shi'ite Islamists. But it leaves other groups, including Sunnis, Kurds and secular Iraqis — and not a few observers in Washington — wondering whether the prime minister can stop his country from descending into a total sectarian war.