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Amid all the cursing and complaining, there's an unexpected benefit for the U.S. military: the proliferating investigations into the killing of civilians by American troops are being forgotten. In our previous meeting two months ago, the insurgent leader had been cursing the Marines accused in the massacre of innocent civilians in Haditha. Since then, the accumulation of atrocities by Iraq's militias has altered his perspective. "Haditha was nothing compared to what the militias are doing," he says.
It's hard not to sympathize with Al-Maliki. The Prime Minister has the near impossible task of repairing the damage wrought by three years' worth of poorly considered policies and half-measures, most of them instituted by U.S. officials and generals who have long since gone home. "I'm tempted to get him a coffee mug with the slogan WORLD'S WORST JOB," a Western diplomat told me in May, when al-Maliki was sworn in. "They've just handed him a toothbrush and told him to clean up the mountain of a mess left by [former U.S. administrator] Paul Bremer, Allawi and [former Prime Minister Ibrahim] al-Jaafari."
Al-Maliki is getting very little help from other Iraqi leaders. The national-unity government is anything but unified. Shi'ite and Sunni ministers routinely contradict one another. It's hard to get consensus even among his fellow Shi'ites. His offer of amnesty for Sunni insurgents was compromised when a powerful Shi'ite leader publicly disagreed about who should be pardoned. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim said insurgents who had killed U.S. service personnel should be pardoned, directly contradicting al-Maliki's promise that those with American blood on their hands would not qualify for amnesty. Al-Maliki's plan was also criticized by al-Sadr. It's probably no coincidence that al-Hakim and al-Sadr control the two largest armed Shi'ite militias, the Badr Organization and Mahdi Army, respectively.
While al-Maliki at least tries to present himself as a unifying figure, railing against Sunni insurgents and Shi'ite militias, many of his partners in the government are blatantly sectarian. Political leaders express outrage over the atrocities committed against their own sect but won't acknowledge that the other side, too, is bleeding. They often dismiss those wounds as self-inflicted. After the bombing of the Samarra shrine, many Sunni leaders told me the blast was the work of Shi'ite agents provocateurs working in concert with Iranian intelligence operatives. Likewise, Mahdi Army commanders routinely accuse Sunni insurgents of committing atrocities against their own kind and then blaming the Shi'ites.