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Feeling the heat from the militias and security forces, Baghdad's Sunnis know their best hope for protection lies in the Americans, the very occupying forces they have despised for toppling them from power. My meeting with a high-level commander of a Sunni insurgent group takes an unexpected turn when he angrily demands, "Where are the Americans? Why aren't they protecting our people?" For two years, the man has boasted to me about his fighters' operations against U.S. soldiers. Now he wants them as a shield from the marauding militias. It's clear from his indignation that the irony escapes him.
The Bush Administration seems to be finally coming out of its state of denial about the danger of sectarianism. For months, officials and military brass have doggedly maintained that the Shi'ite-on-Sunni sectarian killings were one-offs, unlikely to spread across the community. That posture began to change when Shi'ite mobs went on a murderous spree in Baghdad's Sunni neighborhoods after the Feb. 22 bombing of the Shi'ite shrine in Samarra. By the time U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made his latest visit to Baghdad last month, the assessment was more realistic. General George Casey, the U.S. commander in Iraq, told Rumsfeld that Shi'ite death squads were catalyzing a surge in sectarian violence. And General John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, told a Senate committee in Washington last week that if the sectarian violence continued to spiral, Iraq "could move toward civil war."
But recognizing the problem isn't the same as having a solution. The current military strategy isn't succeeding, as evidenced by the continuing tit-for-tat sectarian killings. U.S. and Iraqi forces last month stormed some buildings in the Mahdi Army's stronghold of Sadr City, killing several fighters and arresting a top commander. But the anticipated knockout punch was never delivered. Al-Maliki, says a senior Iraqi government official, "doesn't want a war against Muqtada al-Sadr because it would open him up to charges of killing his fellow Shi'ites--like what Allawi faced." After Allawi gave the green light for U.S. forces to attack the Mahdi Army in 2004, he became a political pariah to Shi'ites. And al-Maliki is loath to antagonize al-Sadr after working hard to win his endorsement of the national-unity government.
For Sunnis, the failure to smash the Mahdi Army is not so much an indictment of al-Maliki as proof of a U.S. double standard. Salam al-Zaubai, a Sunni and one of al-Maliki's two Deputy Prime Ministers, complains that U.S. forces treat the militias with kid gloves. "When they attacked the Sunni resistance, they flattened entire cities, like Fallujah," he says. "But when it comes to Sadr City, their approach is different. Why?" For their part, residents of Sadr City ask why the U.S. is attacking the militias--seen as Robin Hood figures--when they should be looking for the Sunni terrorists who bombed the market.