On January 13, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's office issued a terse statement in support of Bush's new strategy to take control of Baghdad.
The plan "represents the common vision and mutual understanding between the Iraqi government and the U.S. administration," the statement said. "It is supportive of the Iraqi government's strategy to acquire command and control, as is clear in the Baghdad security plan, which will be commanded by Iraqis with support of multinational forces."
Although several Iraqi government officials voiced support for Bush's strategy, this was al-Maliki's first official comment on the plan. However, he did not refer to any of the political benchmarks that Bush said the Iraqi government must meet, and al-Maliki has made no public comments in person concerning the plan, a sharp contrast to Bush's televised national address.
Al-Maliki's relative silence has been offset by the increasingly tough talk by U.S. officials. On January 11, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice issued a sternly worded statement saying that al-Maliki's government had to make progress and was on "borrowed time."
More glaring was a blunt statement made to "The New York Times" on January 16 by an unnamed U.S. military official involved in discussions over Bush's strategy questioning the commitment of the Iraqi government to execute the plan. "We are implementing a strategy to embolden a government that is actually part of the problem," the official said. "We are being played like a pawn."
Will Al-Maliki Go After Shi'ite Militias?
Despite his tough rhetoric, there are still questions surrounding al-Maliki's willingness to go after the Shi'ite militias. On January 10, he issued a veiled warning to Muqtada al-Sadr, calling on his militia, the Imam al-Mahdi Army, to disarm or face an all-out attack by U.S. forces. But his subsequent actions have done little to back up this warning.
On January 12, al-Maliki appointed Lieutenant General Abud Qanbar, a little-known Hussein-era military figure, as the top military commander of the Baghdad operation, despite objections by both U.S. and Iraqi military officials, "The Sunday Telegraph" reported on January 14.
He also appointed Qanbar, who will report directly to al-Maliki, without consulting the leaders of other political parties, raising suspicions that Qanbar may have links to sectarian groups. If Qanbar shelters the Al-Mahdi Army, the plan will undoubtedly fail.
"It's a delicate situation. It's very dangerous if it turns out that he has [sectarian] affiliations," Kurdish lawmaker Mahmud Uthman was quoted by the "Los Angeles Times" on January 13 as saying.
There is also speculation in the Iraqi press that al-Sadr's militia will essentially disappear into the general population of Baghdad's Al-Sadr City and wait out any U.S.-backed offensive. "Al-Zaman" reported on January 15 that Al-Mahdi Army commanders are preparing a strategy to counter any U.S. military campaign in Al-Sadr City by purportedly ordering militiamen not to engage any U.S. forces.
Militiamen would temporarily disappear and keep their weapons in preparation for a post-U.S. Iraq. Once the U.S. forces have withdrawn from Iraq, al-Sadr's militia would regroup.
While there is no evidence to suggest that al-Maliki and al-Sadr are in collusion in this alleged strategy, temporarily disbanding the militia would allow U.S. forces to enter Al-Sadr City, an area that was previously off-limits. This could give the appearance that al-Maliki is acquiescing to U.S. and Sunni Arab demands to go after the Al-Mahdi Army, while still effectively sheltering the Shi'ite militia.
Haifa Street Operation Bad Sign
While the new plan's prospects for success are hard to predict, in the short term, it is presumed that the infusion of 21,000 additional U.S. forces will have a positive effect in quelling the violence in Baghdad.
However, U.S. officials have clearly said that the onus is on the Iraqi government to produce results on the ground. "We will support them, but the Iraqis will be in the lead," U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad said on January 15 at a press conference in Baghdad.
Khalilzad also said that the Iraqi government had assured him that they would go after both Shi'ite and Sunni extremists in the effort to gain control of the Iraqi capital. However, if the reports of the recent joint Iraqi-U.S. operation in the Sunni neighborhoods along Baghdad's Haifa Street are accurate, then it does not bode well for any larger operation.
The Haifa Street operation is a campaign to rid the area of Sunni extremists, but several reports have emerged that Iraqi forces have been using heavy-handed tactics against the Sunni Arab population.
In a statement posted on the Internet on January 10, the Muslim Scholars Association, an influential group of Sunni clerics, accused Iraqi government forces of cordoning off several Sunni neighborhoods along Haifa Street, allowing Shi'ite militias to enter and massacre civilians and then calling in U.S. warplanes to bomb the areas.
"When these forces did not manage to storm these areas, the occupation [U.S.] air forces intervened and shelled the areas of Al-Mushahadah and Al-Sheikh Ali, resulting in the martyrdom of a number of people, including women and children, whose bodies have not been recovered until this moment," the statement said.
On January 14, Abd al-Karim al-Samarra'i, a member of the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front, accused an Iraqi soldier of killing eight civilians in the Haifa Street area execution-style in front of U.S. forces.
If similar reports emerge, this would add fuel to the sectarian fire and underscore the Sunni Arabs' belief that they are being marginalized in the new Iraq. With the controversial execution of former President Saddam Hussein and the subsequent "botched" hanging of Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, Sunnis may well continue to see themselves as victims of a vindictive government with a clear sectarian agenda.
The Imam Al-Mahdi Army on parade (epa)
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