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Iraq Report: December 1, 2006

December 1, 2006, Volume 9, Number 42

IRAQI PREMIER UNDER FIRE FROM ALL SIDES. Even as Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was due to meet U.S. President George W. Bush in Jordan on November 29 to discuss ways of halting the violence in Iraq, he faced strong criticism not only from minority Sunni Arab groups, but by members of his own Shi'ite coalition.

Furthermore, U.S. officials, who have been staunchly supportive of al-Maliki, have recently displayed signs of impatience with his inability to stem the violence.

This leaves al-Maliki caught between the of Shi'a, who want him to consolidate power; the Sunni Arabs, who demand to be treated as equals; and the U.S. administration, which wants him to take significant steps to stop the violence.

Attacked From Both Sides

Despite al-Maliki's stated intention of attempting to foster reconciliation with the marginalized Sunnis, they have long assailed him for favoring the Shi'a. Mostly, they have accused al-Maliki of essentially turning a blind eye while Shi'ite militias attack them. In addition, he has been unwilling or unable to weed out Shi'ite militiamen who have infiltrated the police, and who use the cover of the security services to carry out sectarian attacks.

At the same time, Sunnis accuse al-Maliki of coming down too hard on the insurgents, most of whom are Sunni Arabs, while virtually giving free reign to the Shi'ite militias and death squads. This gross discrepancy, Sunnis complain, dissuades many Sunni insurgents from abandoning the armed struggle and entering the political process.

On the other hand, there are those among his own Shi'ite faction that have voiced displeasure with some of positions. His most prominent critic is radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose political bloc on November 29 withdrew from the ruling coalition to protest al-Maliki's planned meeting with Bush (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30, 2006). Al-Sadr had complained that U.S. forces were complicit in allowing Sunni insurgents to launch a spectacular attack on Al-Sadr City that killed over 200 people on November 23 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27, 2006).

Should al-Sadr's bloc maintain its position, this would mean the collapse of al-Maliki's coalition. The al-Sadr bloc, with 30 seats in parliament and four cabinet positions, is widely considered the single-most-significant political figure in Iraq at the moment.

Therefore, if al-Maliki moves to isolate al-Sadr, he may win the support of some Sunni Arabs, but his government will fall. If he yields to al-Sadr, he risks further marginalizing the Sunni Arabs, who may see continuing the insurgency as their only option.

Memo Reveals U.S. Doubts

A secret White House memo that was leaked to "The New York Times" on November 29 revealed uncharacteristically harsh criticism of the Iraqi prime minister. In the November 8 memo, U.S. national security adviser Stephen Hadley expressed grave doubts about al-Maliki's ability to control the sectarian violence, implying that he was either unwilling or unable to be an effective leader.

"The reality on the streets of Baghdad suggests al-Maliki is either ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions, or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into action," Hadley wrote in the memo.

Most importantly, Hadley indicated that despite al-Maliki's reassurances about forming a Shi'ite, Sunni, and Kurdish partnership, his actions "suggested a campaign to consolidate Shi'ite power in Baghdad." Also, the information he receives is being "skewed by his small circle of Al-Da'wah [Party] advisers, coloring his actions and interpretations of reality."

The suggestion that al-Maliki may be trying to consolidate power for the majority Shi'a is particularly startling, because this would mean that the prime minister himself is part of the problem with respect to the sectarian conflict.

Ironically, al-Maliki, whom the Bush administration championed to replace Ibrahim al-Ja'fari in the new government following the December 2005 elections, is starting to be seen in the same light, as an ineffective and divisive leader.

Hadley said in his memo that al-Maliki should end "his political strategy" with al-Sadr and look to develop an alternative political base that included more moderate figures. The leaking of the memo could be an attempt by the U.S. administration to push al-Maliki in that direction.

Postponed Meeting Speaks Volumes

On November 29, the much-anticipated meeting between Bush and al-Maliki was delayed until November 30. U.S. officials said the delay was due to al-Maliki having already met with Jordan's King Abdullah, making a three-way meeting including Bush unnecessary. White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett said the trilateral meeting was always planned as a "social meeting" in any case.

Although, U.S. officials downplayed the postponement, the situation underscored the precarious nature of the Iraqi prime minister's political position. First, the postponement could be a reaction to the announcement by al-Sadr's movement suspending its participation in the Iraqi government.

Indeed, al-Maliki is indebted to al-Sadr and needs his support to keep his coalition government afloat. The postponement was perhaps a gesture from al-Maliki to al-Sadr, showing the importance of the Al-Sadrist bloc to the overall stability of the government. Al-Maliki did not completely acquiesce to al-Sadr, but sent a message that he needs him by giving him an opportunity to rejoin the government.

Second, the postponement could be a direct response to the leaked White House memo. Al-Maliki may feel unable to meet with Bush in the face of such embarrassing criticism by a member of Bush's staff. If he did, he may feel he would be perceived by the Iraqis as being weak and doing the bidding of a foreign power, even as it humiliated him.

Lastly, the meeting itself, aside from the delay, is a sign that al-Maliki's performance is unsatisfactory in the eyes of the U.S. administration. Although Bush has publicly expressed confidence in the Iraqi prime minister, the meeting in Jordan is clearly intended to give the impression that he will push al-Maliki to do more.

Meanwhile, the political process is in virtual paralysis. Al-Maliki's much-touted "national reconciliation" plan, intended to offer amnesty for Sunni Arab fighters in the hope that they will lay down their weapons and join the political process, has stalled. His announcement on November 12 of a major cabinet reshuffle has never materialized, and considering the huge spike in violence, a significant reorganization at this time seems highly unlikely.

There has also been little progress on long-standing promises to review the constitution, which is a major Sunni demand. Most importantly, al-Maliki has not moved to reign in the Shi'ite militias, a step U.S. officials stressed needs to happen if the sectarian violence is to be contained. (By Sumedha Senanayake. Originally published on November 30.)

IS AL-SADR CITY ATTACK BEGINNING OF CIVIL WAR? On November 23, suspected Sunni insurgents detonated five car bombs and fired mortars into the Shi'ite Baghdad district of Al-Sadr City, killing more than 200 and wounding more than 250 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27, 2006). The incident was the deadliest single attack in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

The bombing and the subsequent retaliatory attacks have increased the fear among Iraqi and U.S. officials, as well as regular Iraqis, that the cycle of violence may have reached a point of no return. Indeed, the sheer size and brutality of the violence and the language used to describe it by Iraqi officials suggests that the security situation is at a tipping point.

Reminiscent Of Samarra

The spectacular nature of the Al-Sadr City attack resembles the February bombing of the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, which led to a wave of sectarian violence in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2006). The object of the attack on the mosque, one of the most revered Shi'ite shrines, was to aggravate sectarian divisions among the Iraqi people. The attack on Al-Sadr City, an overwhelmingly Shi'ite enclave, seems meant to evoke a similar response.

Following the Samarra bombings, the sectarian divisions within Iraq became the focal point of the conflict. On October 24, U.S. General George W. Casey, the commander of the U.S.-led forces in Iraq, said the nature of the Iraq conflict was "evolving from what was an insurgency against us [coalition forces] to a struggle for the division of political and economic power among the Iraqis" and "the bombing of the Al-Askari Mosque heightened this." The Al-Sadr City attack can be expected to further aggravate this conflict.

Already, reports of audacious reprisal attacks by alleged Shi'ite militias indicate that the security situation may be worsening. On November 24, Al-Sharqiyah television reported that Shi'ite militiamen attacked a Sunni mosque in the Al-Hurriyah neighborhood of Baghdad and allegedly burned several Sunni Arabs alive. The brutality of these killings suggests that Iraq may be on the brink for an even bloodier phase in the sectarian conflict.

The spike in violence has led to Iraqis increasingly joining both the Shi'ite militias and the Sunni insurgent groups, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on November 28. Some have joined these groups to participate in retaliatory attacks. However, most have joined them for protection, fearing that the Iraqi government is unable to protect them.

Retaliatory Attacks

Before the attacks in Al-Sadr City on November 23, the Health Ministry was also attacked the same day. The ministry building was hit by several mortar rounds, followed by an armed attack on the building by gunmen. Hundreds of ministry workers were trapped as security guards attempted to repel the attackers, believed to be Sunni insurgents.

Health Minister Ali al-Shammari is a member of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's movement, and the ministry is widely believed to be a Sadrist stronghold. Al-Sadr's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, has been widely accused by U.S. and Sunni officials of being responsible for attacks on Sunni Arabs.

Health Ministry officials were also targeted in a series of attacks prior to the November 23 assault. On November 19, several gunmen, some in military uniforms, abducted Deputy Health Minister Ammar al-Saffar from his Baghdad home (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 20, 2006). Then, the following day, Deputy Health Minister Hakim al-Zamili survived an assassination attempt when gunmen ambushed his convoy in Baghdad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 21, 2006).

The series of coordinated attacks against the Health Ministry and its personnel may be an extension of the sectarian conflict. The attacks may have been retaliation for the kidnapping of hundreds of staff and visitors from the Sunni-dominated Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research on November 14 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 15, 2006). In that attack, witnesses said the gunmen were wearing police commando uniforms and several Iraqi officials indicated that the abductions were the work of Shi'ite militiamen who had infiltrated the Interior Ministry.

Furthermore, the discrepancies concerning the number of abductions between Higher Education Minister Abd Dhiyab al-Ajili and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki underscore the deep sectarian divisions and feelings of suspicion. After most of the hostages were freed, al-Ajili, a Sunni, insisted that dozens of hostages were still being held, and suspended his participation in the government until they were all freed. The Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad downplayed the incident, saying that all but two hostages were freed and accused the media of exaggerating the number of hostages taken.

First Shots In Civil War?

It seems that the Al-Sadr City bombings have taken the violence to a level where it is gaining momentum faster than either U.S. forces or the Iraqi government can respond. As the escalating carnage adds to the impression that al-Maliki's government is weak, the conflict is moving closer to resembling an all-out civil war.

The suggestion that the Iraq conflict is approaching or has become a sectarian civil war is nothing new, but the idea is being discussed with new urgency. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said on November 27 that the increasing violence indicated that Iraq was dangerously close to a state of civil war.

Prior to the Al-Sadr City attacks, U.S. officials warned of Iraq's perilous security situation. CIA Director Michael Hayden told the Senate Armed Services Committee on November 15 that the CIA station in Baghdad described the current situation as reverting to a chaotic state where rival factions were increasingly fighting amongst each other.

Although he did not say that it has reached the level of civil war, his description of the conflict fragmenting into smaller local conflicts implies that the situation is worsening. "Their view of the battlefield is that it is descending into smaller and smaller groups fighting over smaller and smaller issues and over smaller and smaller pieces of territory," Hayden said.

The White House has even acknowledged that the recent upsurge in violence was of great concern, but it denied that Iraq was heading toward civil war. Instead, it said, sectarian violence had entered "a new phase." (By Sumedha Senanayake. Originally published on November 29.)