Feature

Iraq’s Prime Minister Feels the Heat

Al-Maliki finds himself in a sticky situation.

What happenedThe U.S. troop surge is stabilizing parts of Iraq, but the Iraqi government remains divided and ineffective, U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded. A National Intelligence Estimate, a consensus of all 16 U.S. spy agencies, found that the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has failed to take advantage of 'œmeasurable but uneven improvements in security' to forge consensus on the key political issue: sharing oil revenues and political power among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. 'œIraqi political leaders remain unable to govern effectively,' the report concluded.

The findings last week touched off an avalanche of criticism of al-Maliki. Two powerful Democratic senators, presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton and Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, called for al-Maliki to resign. An influential Republican, Sen. John Warner, said al-Maliki had 'œlet down the American forces.' Al-Maliki quickly struck back. 'œIraq is a sovereign country,' he declared, saying the senators were acting 'œas if Iraq were one of their cities.' Citing his recent visit to Syria, he warned that Iraq could 'œfind friends elsewhere.'

Al-Maliki this week imposed a curfew on the Shiite holy city of Karbala, after intra-Shiite clashes during an annual pilgrimage left 52 people dead. Radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army was suspected of starting the conflict by attacking the rival Badr Brigade. As the violence spread to Baghdad, Iraqi troops began evacuating nearly 1 million pilgrims from Karbala.

What the editorials saidAl-Maliki can't even control the Shiites, said the Chicago Tribune, much less bring them together in talks with Sunnis and Kurds. Iraq's spiraling violence proves that although the surge can suppress fighting in some places, 'œno troop level can encourage Iraqi leaders to reconcile.' While our soldiers do their jobs, al-Maliki shirks his.

Dumping on al-Maliki misses the point, said The Washington Post. He may be biased toward Shiites, but 'œhis sectarianism is no worse' than that of most Iraqi leaders. The Sunnis have hardly been eager partners: They gave al-Maliki a mere seven days to comply with a huge list of demands before stomping out of the government. And the Kurds won't budge on vital issues such as oil-sharing. Iraq's problems are far bigger than any one man. 'œIraqis are not yet ready to come to terms with each other, and may not be for some years.'

What the columnists saidWar critics are focusing on al-Maliki because militarily the tide has turned, said Frederick Kagan in The Weekly Standard. The National Intelligence Estimate clearly indicates that the surge is working, and that U.S. troop withdrawal would reverse our hard-won gains against al Qaida in Iraq. We now have tens of thousands of Iraqi army troops and police fighting al Qaida and the Mahdi Army. The goals of the surge were 'œto stabilize and then reduce sectarian and terrorist violence in Iraq, and that is happening.'

The fight against al Qaida in Iraq is a sideshow, said Joe Klein in Time. The real battles now are between Sunnis and Shiites and among various Shiite factions. We can't rely on the Iraqi army to calm things, since most units are 'œlaced with members of various Shiite militias.' The struggle for control of Iraq is 'œramping up,' and ultimately, 'œthe choice will be made by the Iraqis, not us.'

But we can't just do what we're doing and hope for the best, said Dennis Ross in The New Republic. The U.S. must aggressively manage a transition to a functional Iraqi government. The first step is to come to terms with the Iraqis over an actual timetable for U.S. withdrawal. Then we should convene a 'œnational reconciliation' conference and not let it disband until agreement is reached. It may be too late for such a pragmatic approach. But surely it is worth 'œone last try.'

What next?

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