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Iraq Report: April 27, 2007

Premier's Political Position Increasingly Shaky

By Sumedha Senanayake

Nuri al-Maliki (file photo)

April 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Attacked by Iraqi lawmakers for being ineffective, pressured by U.S. officials to produce results, and constantly dealing with the unending cycle of violence, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's political leadership has been under fire since he has was appointed a year ago.

Iraqi lawmakers have become increasingly impatient as violence rages and the legislative process has essentially ground to a halt. While Sunni lawmakers have long accused al-Maliki's government of not doing enough to entice Sunni insurgents to lay down their weapons and join the political process, there have been rumblings even within al-Maliki's own Shi'ite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), that the political situation has become unfeasible.

Rumbles Within Ruling Coalition

On March 7, the Al-Fadilah Party withdrew from the UIA, complaining that its agenda was too sectarian, Reuters reported. "We consider the first step of saving Iraq is to dismantle these blocs and to prevent blocs [from] forming on a sectarian basis," Al-Fadilah leader Nadim al-Jabiri said.
"This government has not delivered and is not capable of doing the job. They should resign."

Then on April 16, six ministers from Muqtada al-Sadr's political bloc resigned in protest after al-Maliki refused to discuss a timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal. The resignation did not directly affect the stability of al-Maliki's coalition, since the al-Sadr bloc is still in the UIA, at least for the moment.

Other lawmakers have voiced frustration with the government's inability to pass legislation outlining the equitable distribution of oil revenues, saying this is a clear indication that al-Maliki should step down.

"He is a weak prime minister," Mahmud Uthman, a member of the Kurdish Alliance, which is part of the government, told the U.S. daily "USA Today" on April 24. "This government has not delivered and is not capable of doing the job. They should resign."

Shi'ite lawmaker Qasim Dawud, a member of an independent bloc within the UIA, told the daily that the prime minister's inability to push through legislation that would ease tensions between Shi'a and Sunnis would ultimately lead to this government's demise.

"The present government is not competent," Dawud said. "It's more or less paralyzed, inactive. I doubt very much that this government can continue in power much longer."

Shifting Political Sands

The political paralysis has caused a flurry of political jockeying in an effort to create a new coalition to unseat the UIA and break the political logjam. In March, former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi announced that he was moving to form a new broad-based political bloc, in an effort to form a new national-unity government.

Allawi waits in the wings (RFE/RL file photo)

Although no official announcement has been made concerning this new political coalition, allegedly called the Iraq National Front, there has been speculation that it may encompass a broad-based grouping of political parties, including both Shi'ite and Sunni parties. There have been rumors for months that Allawi's Iraqi National List has been discussing an alliance with the Accordance Front, the National Dialogue Front, and the National Reconciliation Front

Indeed, the Saudi daily "Al-Watan" reported on April 22,that Allawi met with al-Sadr and several of his deputies, allegedly to discuss the proposition of the al-Sadr bloc joining the Iraq National Front.

This would be an extraordinary turn of events between two bitter rivals. Allawi and al-Sadr clashed bitterly in 2004, when the former was prime minister and the latter spearheaded two major uprisings against U.S. and Iraqi forces. In fact, there was speculation that Allawi was planning on killing al-Sadr during the second uprising, because the radical cleric was becoming too popular and powerful.

An alliance would underscore the capriciousness of Iraqi politics, where alliances shift, internal disputes cause splits, and unlikely partnerships emerge based on mutual needs.

Impatience In Washington

U.S. officials continue to send conflicting messages about their support for al-Maliki. U.S. officials have stressed their support for al-Maliki, but have called for benchmarks that the Iraqi government has to meet in order for U.S. support to continue.

On April 19, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates made an unscheduled trip to Iraq, where he expressed impatience with the Iraqi government and warned that the U.S. military buildup in Iraq was not "an open-ended commitment."

"The clock is ticking," Gates said. "I know it's difficult, and clearly the attack on the Council of Representatives has made people nervous." Gates was referring to the April 12 suicide attack on the Iraqi parliament building in the Green Zone.

During a news conference in Berlin on April 25, Gates was asked if al-Maliki's government was able to achieve a political reconciliation among the Sunnis, Shi'a, and Kurds. Gates curtly replied less-than enthusiastically, "This government is the one we have to work with."

Future Tied To Security Plan

Backroom political discussions are nothing new during al-Maliki's tenure. In November, prior to a meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush in Jordan, al-Maliki was severely criticized by Iraqi lawmakers, including members of the UIA, for being a weak and ineffective leader.

Violence continues to poison sectarian relations (AFP file photo)

The following months, rumors appeared in the Iraqi press of a new political alliance being formed between the main Shi'ite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the Kurdish Alliance, and the Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party. But internal disagreements and competing agendas prevented the new political bloc from forming.

Ironically, competing political agendas might be al-Maliki's saving grace; the inability of other political parties to put aside their differences to form a cohesive alliance may actually keep him in power.

However, al-Maliki's fate seems inextricably linked to the security situation. After a promising beginning to the Baghdad security operation, which saw a significant decline in bombings and sectarian attacks, recent weeks have witnessed attacks on an almost unprecedented level.

The bold suicide attack on the Iraqi parliament building on April 12, killed three people, including an Iraqi lawmaker, and wounded 22. Then on April 18, a series of suicide bombings in Baghdad killed more than 200 people and wounded more than 250, in what many media outlets described as one of the bloodiest days since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Qathim Turki Jamil, a member of Allawi's political movement, suggested that if violence is not quelled through the current security plan, then al-Maliki's position may be untenable and the Iraqi people many demand a change, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on April 22.

"The current government has attached itself to this security plan," Jamil said. "But what has it accomplished so far other than more explosions? The Iraqi people have run out of patience."

Violence Rages In Baghdad Despite Security Plan

By Sumedha Senanayake

Over 200 people were killed in this and other bombings on April 18

April 25, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- While U.S. military officials have said that there have been signs that the Baghdad security plan is having a positive effect, a recent series of high-profile attacks underscored that the security situation in Iraq remains very tenuous.

When the Baghdad security plan was launched on February 14, many Iraqi and U.S. officials bluntly stressed that this could be the final opportunity to establish order in the Iraqi capital.

And the seriousness of the security situation was further emphasized by the news that the U.S. military was planning to build a security barrier around the Sunni neighborhood of Al-Adhamiyah to protect its residents from reprisal attacks.

Series Of Audacious Attacks

In an indication perhaps that insurgents were adapting to the current security environment due to the Baghdad operation in recent weeks, the Iraqi capital witnessed a series of high-profile attacks.

On April 12, a suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest inside one of the cafeterias of the Iraqi parliament building, killing three, including an Iraqi lawmaker, and injuring 22 others.

The attack was shocking, given that the parliament building is located in the heavily fortified Green Zone and those entering from outside must pass through five security checkpoints. The attack demonstrated that insurgents and terrorists could still strike even in the most heavily guarded section of Baghdad.

Moreover, it revealed the possibility that the attack was carried out with assistance from those inside the parliament. Two weeks before the April 12 bombing, the U.S. military found two suicide vests in the Green Zone, suggesting that the attack may not have been an isolated incident.

One of the most spectacular attacks in Baghdad occurred on April 18, when a series of five bombings killed nearly 200 people and wounded more than 250 people. The deadliest of them took place in the predominantly Shi'ite neighborhood of Al-Sadriyah in central Baghdad, where a car bomb exploded near a marketplace, killing 140 people and wounding 159.

Sectarian Dimension

Local officials blamed Sunni insurgents for the attacks, but the sheer scale and coordination behind the bombings underscored that despite the ongoing security operation, insurgents could still cause mayhem.

In addition, the massive attack on the Shi'ite neighborhood of Al-Sadriyah has increased the pressure on U.S. and Iraqi forces to protect Shi'ite districts, which prior to the new security operation were primarily the responsibility of the Shi'ite militias, most notably Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army.

However, since al-Sadr's militia has taken an increasingly lower profile and has shown restraint in not being provoked into confrontation with Sunni insurgents, the onus rests on the U.S. and Iraqi forces to provide protection. Continuing attacks similar to the Al-Sadriyah market bombing may force residents into the streets to demand the protection of the militia.

Blowback From The Surge

On April 23, a suicide truck bombing on a U.S. military patrol base near the town of Ba'qubah in the restive Diyala Governorate killed nine U.S. soldiers and wounded more than 20. Media described the attack as the deadliest since December 2005, and the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq later issued a statement claiming responsibility for the bombing.

The attack underscored the increasing volatility of the Diyala Governorate. The U.S. military describes Diyala as the third-most-dangerous governorate in Iraq after Al-Anbar and Baghdad, and 56 U.S. soldiers have been killed there since November.

There are suggestions that Diyala is starting to turn into a major front, after "The Washington Post" reported on April 21 that the U.S. military is sending an additional 2,000 soldiers into the governorate.

The increase in violence in the governorate may be partly due to Al-Qaeda-linked elements being pushed out of the Baghdad by the ongoing security operation. As Baghdad is blanketed by thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops, Al-Qaeda fighters are forced to seek other places to carry out their operations.

The attack near Ba'qubah is particularly striking, because it is relatively rare that a U.S. military instillation, albeit a smaller outpost, has come under a full frontal assault. The attack itself could be viewed as a direct response by Al-Qaeda to the Baghdad security operation. Unable to penetrate the heavily fortified U.S. military bases in Baghdad and other major cities, the group has much better chances of success when it attacks more vulnerable smaller outposts.

Barrier Causes Uproar

The increasing violence and fears of Shi'ite reprisal attacks against Sunni Arabs prompted the U.S. military to begin erecting a wire-and-concrete barrier around the Sunni neighborhood of Al-Adhamiyah on April 10. After the news of the barrier became known, Sunni politicians and local Sunni leaders condemned the plan, accusing the U.S. and Iraqi governments of isolating community. The outcry and subsequent street demonstrations prompted Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to call for construction to be halted.

Many rejected the U.S. contention that the so-called "gated community" would increase security for the neighborhood by preventing Shi'ite death squads from attacking its residents. Conversely, residents likened the plan to transforming Al-Adhamiyah into a huge prison and accused the U.S. and Iraqi governments of using collective punishment.

Indeed, some Sunni leaders cited to the belief that separating the Sunni neighborhood from the surrounding Shi'ite districts would accentuate the sectarian divisions between Shi'a and Sunni that may ultimately lead to increased animosity. The Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party issued a statement on April 21 warning that the barrier would "inflict social and economic damage and it will lead to more sectarian tension."

There was also the inevitable comparison by some in the Arab media of the Al-Adhamiyah barrier to the Israeli separation barrier. An April 23 editorial in the pan-Arab daily "Al-Quds al-Arabi" described the barrier as an act of desperation by the United States in its attempts to gain control of the security situation.

"It seems that the U.S. administration has exhausted all the solutions and ideas in its possession to control the situation in Iraq. So it has resorted to its Israeli ally to ask for help, and the answer came in the form of a plan to build walls to split Baghdad's quarters and entrench sectarian separation," the editorial said.

Regardless of whether the comparison is justified or not, the mere notion that the United States is employing "Israeli" tactics in Iraq does not bode well for U.S. attempts to win the "hearts and minds" of the Iraqi people.

Signs Of Failure?

It would be presumptuous to assume that the U.S. surge policy and the Baghdad security plan is failing. U.S. military officials have stressed that maximum troop levels will not be reached until mid-summer, and only then will it be known if the new policy is achieving its aims.

U.S. military officials have claimed that sectarian violence has been significantly curtailed since the Baghdad security operation began. Indeed, the essential "disappearance" of al-Sadr's militia, which the United States and some Iraqi officials blame for many of the attacks against Sunnis, has undoubtedly reduced the overall level of sectarian violence in Baghdad. Furthermore, the militia's decision to lay low is a direct result of the security plan.

However, the recent spike in car bombings and high-profile attacks such as the Al-Sadriyah market bombing may be an indication that insurgents have altered their tactics to counter the Baghdad offensive. Major General Michael Barbero, the Joint Staff's deputy director for regional operations, said at an April 19 press conference that he expects more high-profile bomb attacks by Sunni extremists.

"It's, you know, action on our part, and now we're seeing the reaction on their part," Barbero said. "And it'll be like that until we can defeat these forces."

In addition, the plan to construct the Al-Adhamiyah security barrier has struck a nerve among the populace. While the policy is based on benign U.S. intentions, the mere idea of sequestering an entire neighborhood in order to protect it emphasizes the seriousness of the security situation.

The majority of Iraqi leaders, like Mahmud Uthman, a member of the Kurdistan Alliance, believes the barrier represents a complete and utter failure of the U.S. military to achieve its security objectives. However, what may be more damaging is the highly symbolic idea the barrier conveys, in that after four years of bloodshed, the differences among Iraq's factions are so great that perhaps they cannot be overcome.