Iraq's Divide at the Top

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Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

That Iraq is spinning dangerously out of control is no longer a matter of debate; the question has become how to stabilize it and limit the damage. The bipartisan Iraq Study Group, headed up by former Secretary of State James Baker, is supposed to offer up some answers next month when it presents its much-anticipated report. But the events of the past week underscore how difficult even damage-control in Iraq has become.

U.S. policy in Iraq depends largely on the ability of the elected government to forge a national unity compact that can end both the insurgency and the sectarian violence that continues to claim hundreds of casualties every week. And right now the signs of that government being able to achieve that goal are not looking good.

The gloomy assessment of the situation in Iraq offered in the Senate this week by U.S. intelligence chiefs was echoed by events on the ground: The mass abduction of dozens of people inside the headquarters of the higher eduction ministry — by men wearing uniforms of the Interior Ministry police no less — highlighted the absence of security or government control even in the heart of the capital. And the reported arrests of senior police officers that followed — as well as sharply divergent accounts by different cabinet ministers of how many people had been kidnapped, how many had been released, and whether any had been killed or tortured — suggested that different arms of the government (often broken down on sectarian lines) are not reading off the same script.

That impression was reinforced Thursday when Interior Minister, Jawad al-Bolani, a Shi'ite, issued an arrest warrant for leading Sunni cleric Harith al-Dari, accusing him of fomenting terrorism and sectarian violence. Al-Dari is the head of the influential Muslim Scholars Association, who while condemning terror attacks on Iraqi civilians has nonetheless openly backed insurgent attacks on U.S. forces as "legitimate resistance." The arrest warrant was greeted with howls of protest by the Sunni parties participating in the government, who denounced it as a sectarian attack. Some Sunni leaders even warned that if it were not rescinded, they would quit the government.

Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, a Kurd, hastened to distance the government from the warrant, perhaps mindful of the importance of leaders such as al-Dari for the government to have any real chance at tamping down the insurgency through a political accommodation of the Sunnis. And the government tried to stem the controversy Friday by clarifying that it had only issued an investigation warrant, not an arrest warrant; one official insisted that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki didn't know that any warrant was going to be issued. But the damage has already been done. It didn't help matters that the announcement had been made in a dramatic late-night television appearance by the Interior Minister, who warned that "this is the government's policy against anyone who tries to foment division among Iraq's sects." After a meeting of ministers on the security situation reportedly broke down into a Sunni-Shi'ite shouting match on Tuesday, President Jalal Talabani has moved to convene an urgent conference of Iraqi political leaders to address the crisis. >

But the failures of the Iraqi government are only one part of the challenge facing the Administration in setting an Iraq policy capable of delivering stability and offering the prospect of bringing home American troops. What are widely believed to be the Baker group's basic assumptions — that the U.S. can no longer achieve the goals defined by the Bush Administration at the outset of the war; that achieving stability will require a regional consensus in which Iran and Syria would be important stakeholders — have already entered conventional wisdom in U.S. debates over Iraq. Since the U.S. election, talk-shows and op-ed pages are filled with proposals ranging from partitioning Iraq to backing a friendly authoritarian regime taking power, from "phased withdrawal" of U.S. troops to force the Iraqis to get the job done to sending thousands more troops in the hope of reversing the slide into chaos. But Baker has made clear that there is no simple formula that can fix the mess in Iraq — the reality on the ground has already moved beyond U.S. control.

While the U.S. remains the single largest power center in Iraq, that power is not sufficient to impose Washington's will. There are too many other actors in the field who have enough influence of their own, or in combination, to prevent the U.S. from prevailing. Those power centers range from the Sunni insurgency and the Shi'ite militias to the Iraqi government and Iraq's neighbors, first and foremost Iran.

So, whatever direction Baker proposes, it is less likely to be a comprehensive blueprint than aprocess for the various stakeholders in Iraq to build consensus on how to establish a measure of stability. And that will necessarily be a long and drawn-out discussion, during which the security needs will remain unchanged and urgent. That may have been why President Bush's basic message on Iraq this week boiled down to this: Don't expect results in a hurry.