Maliki: No Fan of the Surge

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Whatever the military merits of sending 21,500 more American soldiers into Iraq, President Bush's proposed "surge" is likely to be undermined by politics. No, not in Washington—in Baghdad.

The weakest link in Bush's plan is that it depends on the cooperation of Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. After a phone conference with the Iraqi leader, Pres. Bush said al-Maliki had promised U.S. forces would be given a free hand, and that "political or sectarian interference will not be tolerated." Such interference has in the past blighted U.S. efforts to curb the Shi'ite militias responsible for most of the sectarian killing, especially in Baghdad.

Here's the problem: the person who did most of the interfering, arguably, was al-Maliki himself. Although he nominally heads an all-party, national unity government, al-Maliki is a Shi'ite partisan, and he has pursued a blatantly sectarian course in the eight months since he was sworn in, antagonizing Sunnis and allowing Shi'ite militias to run amok. His main political backing comes from Moqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand leader of the most dangerous militia, the Mahdi Army. In his speeches, al-Maliki routinely promises to deal firmly with the militias, but in practice, he has always shielded them from American arms. When U.S. forces have tried to crack down on the Mahdi Army, they have been held back by al-Maliki. Worse, the Prime Minister has played to the Shi'ite gallery by publicly chastising the U.S. military for its pains.

In addition to being deeply frustrating for U.S. commanders, al-Maliki's actions have convinced Iraq's Sunnis that their only hope for survival lies with insurgent and jihadi groups who can take on the Mahdi Army at its own game. This has led to an escalation in sectarian violence, especially in and around Baghdad.

For the "surge" plan to work, al-Maliki will have to change his ways. Ahead of Bush's speech, al-Maliki aides told journalists in Baghdad that the Prime Minister was willing to let the Americans take down the militias. But such promises have in the past proven empty. Unlike Bush, who has finally acknowledged some mistakes in his Iraq policies, al-Maliki has never expressed any regret over his open defense of the militias. Nor has he been able to wean himself away from his political dependence on al-Sadr. As long as al-Maliki needs al-Sadr's backing to stay in office, he is unlikely to allow U.S. forces—whatever the number—to confront the Mahdi Army. And without such a confrontation, there can be no hope of ending the sectarian war.