Why Saddam's Execution Clouds Bush's Iraq Plan

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As America waits for President Bush to announce a new plan for Iraq, the brutal spectacle of Saddam Hussein's execution, recorded on cell phone video and seen around the Middle East, has drawn condemnation from around the world, including Washington. But Saddam's final moments highlight a much more serious and fundamental problem facing the Administration: The U.S. no longer has any control over the Iraqi political process.

Having created a new state in Iraq — and not yet ready to admit that it is a failed state — the U.S. felt obliged to hand Saddam Hussein over to the Iraqis to administer the death penalty, even though Washington made clear it would have preferred that Saddam's sentence be administered at a less fraught moment — and in a less rushed manner. But being the ones to kill Saddam was a political prize for at least a section of the current government — the ultimate gesture of vengeance on behalf of the long-suffering Shi'ite majority, clearly calculated to boost the political standing of those who administered it. And so, as the video makes clear, Saddam faced death to the sound of chants proclaiming Shi'ite victory and extolling the name of the anti-American radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada Sadr — not exactly the healing denouement the U.S. had in mind for the Saddam era.

It's no surprise that the Iraqi government wasn't inclined to follow a U.S. script in dispatching Saddam, because it hasn't been inclined to follow a U.S. script on the fundamental questions of national unity — reconciling with the Sunnis, making concessions to the insurgents to draw former Baathists back into the fold, and most importantly, reining in the Shi'ite death squads. Nor is this problem a unique failing of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki — who, in an interview in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday made clear that he no longer wants the job. The U.S. had no greater joy with his predecessor, Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

And U.S. efforts to either detach Maliki from his key patron — Sadr, whose militia is in the thick of much of the sectarian violence — or else persuade Shi'ite rivals such as Abdulaziz al-Hakim to form a new coalition with the Sunnis and Kurds, excluding Maliki and Sadr, appear to be floundering. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the supreme Shi'ite spiritual leader whose expressed will neither Maliki nor Hakim can cross, has made clear that he will not tolerate any moves that break the unity of the ruling Shi'ite coalition that includes Maliki, Hakim and Sadr.

A little over a month ago, an internal Bush Administration memo written by National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley wondered somewhat naively whether Maliki might be a "witting participant" in "an aggressive push to consolidate Shia power and influence" in Baghdad. Shi'ite power, after all, is the raison d'etre of the ruling Shi'ite alliance; Sistani ensured that all the major Shi'ite parties contested the election as a bloc in order to guarantee the Shi'ites a share of political power congruent with their demographic majority. Shi'ite-power, far from a hidden agenda, was the winning ticket in both of Iraq's democratic elections.

So if, as the U.S. recognizes, the major security challenge in Iraq is sectarianism tending toward civil war, then the Iraqi government is hardly above the fray. (The two main Shi'ite militias responsible for most attacks on Sunnis, for example, are affiliated with the ruling coalition, which has tended to restrain U.S. military action against them.) While the Shi'ite leadership is willing to cooperate with the U.S. to the extent that this helps it pursue its own goals, the Shi'ite base is increasingly mistrustful of Washington's efforts to promote reconciliation with the Baathists and take down militias that many Shi'ites see as vital to their defense against Sunni insurgents. At the very moment the U.S. needs greater cooperation from the government, Prime Minister Maliki needs to show his independence from Washington, where doubts about his usefulness are no secret. No wonder he no longer wants the job.

Whether or not the Bush Administration decides to send more troops to help secure Baghdad, it's widely agreed that the essence of the problem is political rather than military — unless Iraq's factions, including the government, are willing to reach a new accord, no amount of U.S. troops will be able to put Iraq back together. And the macabre political theater of Saddam's hanging was a reminder that no matter how many divisions it has in Baghdad, what the U.S. appears to lack is an Iraqi partner.