The Baghdad Balancing Act

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Yuri Kozyrev for TIME

U.S. soldiers with the 6th squadron, 9th cavalry of the 1st Cavalry Division patrol Shakarat Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, which has become increasingly violent as insurgents flee to escape Iraqi and American military operations in the capital.

The U.S. is learning it can't pick sides in the sectarian bloodbath that has unfolded over the past year as ballooning Sunni and Shi'ite death squads have played a gruesome game of tit-for-tat. Last fall, a senior U.S. intelligence official in Baghdad explained that one side would always seek to take advantage of the other's weakness, which necessitated that the U.S. move to weaken and dismantle both in equal measure. To demonstrate, he put his hands up at the same level and brought them down simultaneously, as if closing a window.

But getting the Shi'ite-dominated Iraqi government to display the same evenhandedness has been a challenge. In the West Wing on Monday, President Bush and Vice President Cheney spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki via video conference. Gesturing from a large flat panel screen in the cramped Situation Room, al-Maliki assured Bush and Cheney he was committed to implementing the most recent security plan for Iraq in an "evenhanded manner," according to the White House. That was exactly what Bush and Cheney wanted to hear.

Honoring that commitment has been made easier for al-Maliki by the restraint shown by the Shi'ite militias over the past month. U.S. military commanders say the Shi'ite death squads have largely gone to ground during Operation Imposing Law. U.S. military officials also believe Muqtada al-Sadr, the rabble-rousing militant who is also a crucial political ally of al-Maliki, has gone to ground in Iran during the first weeks of the surge. And there were no major confrontations even when U.S. and Iraqi forces entered the militia stronghold of Sadr City.

Shi'ite restraint, however, has provided an opening for Sunni suicide bombers, say American commanders. A rash of car bombings against Shi'ite markets and neighborhoods over the past month has gone largely unanswered. Until now. Recent police reports indicate that the restraint of the Shi'ite death squads is coming to an end. Over 30 bodies were found shot execution-style in Baghdad on Monday, most thought to be reprisals carried out by Shi'ite militias.

At the same time, al-Sadr seems to be offering an olive branch to his Sunni rivals. His most recent Friday prayer, usually delivered to excitable crowds, was handed out on flyers in Sadr City. In it he asked his followers to unite with all Iraqis. "Reject all division and factionalism, sectarian and civil war," read the missive. "Treat your brother Iraqis as brothers. Do not discriminate between Sunni and Shi'ite at all, and nor against others, so that you be the highest example of all this." Instead he asked them to focus their rage against another enemy: "Raise your voices in love and brotherhood and unity against your enemy and shout 'No, No, America! No, No Israel! No, No Satan!' "

At least there's something both sides can agree on.