Iraqi Leaders Flexing Muscles

Times Staff Writers

For the last two years, U.S. authorities have had firm control of the mission in Iraq. They have set rules for military operations and worked with Iraqi leaders blessed by Washington. But the arrival of an elected government this month will take the partnership in new directions that the Americans may find difficult to control.

The ambitious new Iraqi leaders have their own ideas and, with elections ahead, are sensitive to grass-roots pressure. And with the Americans increasingly reluctant to be seen running the country, the Iraqis have taken the initiative in the relationship.

No top Iraqi leader has pushed the Americans to leave the country or challenged basic terms of the relationship, including the status of U.S. forces in Iraq. But in the months ahead, as they write a constitution, Iraqis will start rethinking the fundamental ways in which they deal with the Americans, U.S. officials say.


“They’re molding and shaping their government,” said a Bush administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “So far, we’re not hearing a lot of demands for change. But we know these questions are coming.”

The most sensitive questions ahead are those concerning the U.S. military. When the new Iraqi administration takes over, the United States will be in the unusual position of providing an army for a country that another government controls.

U.S. military officials say there has been no indication that the transitional government wants to negotiate the basic accord -- called a status of forces agreement -- under which U.S. troops will operate. Some military officials predict that the Iraqis will be preoccupied with writing a new constitution and that the military treaty will be left for the permanent government. Under transitional law, the permanent leaders are to be elected no later than Dec. 15 and to assume office by Dec. 31.

Pentagon officials and U.S. commanders don’t want such an agreement at this point, arguing that it could dangerously restrict them as they battle a lethal insurgency.

But without such a written pact, rules governing U.S. troops’ activities will remain subject to informal agreements that Iraqi leaders can seek to change.

Iraqis could ask for new rules on the treatment of insurgents and tighter controls on foreign troops at checkpoints and on foreign security contractors, who now enjoy a status much like coalition troops in the way they carry and use weapons.

One signal that Iraqis might seek a new approach on some issues came last week, when new Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said he wanted to offer insurgents a broad amnesty and left open the possibility that this could include Iraqis who had attacked coalition troops.

On Friday, a prominent Sunni Muslim cleric urged Talabani, a Kurd, to follow through on the amnesty pledge. In his weekly sermon, Sheik Ahmad Abdul-Ghafoor Samarrai, a cleric in the influential Muslim Scholars Assn., said Talabani should free all Iraqi detainees and refuse to “obey and kneel to pressure” from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Among other issues, Shiite Muslim leaders also may pressure the U.S. military not to train former Baath Party members, who many Shiites believe secretly support the insurgents. At the same time, American officials are groping for ways to keep Sunnis involved in the new administration and avoid angering and alienating a large segment of the population.

Michael Rubin, a former political advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority, the temporary U.S.-led governing body, said he believed that Iraqis would clamor for changes on several security issues. A fight over the U.S. training of former Baathists “could bring on the first Iraqi sovereignty crisis,” said Rubin, now a scholar at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute.

Rubin predicted that U.S. officials would find it difficult to manage these issues, in part because of their desire to stay at arm’s length from Iraqi government decision-making.

President Bush has made it clear that he wants Iraqi democracy to take its course, and U.S. officials don’t want to undermine the government’s legitimacy by making it appear that the Americans are still pulling the strings. Yet there are strong temptations to step in.

Such as when Talabani made his amnesty comments. The Bush administration felt strongly that “people who’ve committed violence against coalition troops shouldn’t just get a pass,” said a U.S. official, who declined to be identified. But “we didn’t want to go out and take issue with it publicly. We don’t want to cause problems for him with the local population.”

In recent weeks, as newly elected representatives argued over formation of the government, various Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni Arab leaders privately asked the Americans to intervene with the other groups to force a solution. U.S. officials declined, temporarily throwing the negotiations into even greater turmoil.

On several occasions, however, the Americans have spoken up.

As U.S. concern mounted that a purge of Baathists would slow the establishment of an Iraqi army, Rumsfeld warned last week that “anything that would delay [a functioning army] or disrupt that as a result of turbulence, or lack of confidence, or corruption in government, would be unfortunate.”

Dealing with the new government will be tricky for the Americans in part because of its complexity. Under interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, U.S. officials were able to deal with an American favorite who had broad control over the government. Now, with the arrival of new executive branch officials and an elected legislature, there will be several power centers.

The new leadership is trying to bring influential tribal and political leaders into the government, hoping to build its support base. So far, Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari has appointed 31 ministers.

It is expected that some of these officials will not hesitate to criticize Iraqi leaders or the Americans. There is speculation, for instance, that a deputy prime minister post could go to Ahmad Chalabi, the controversial former exile and Pentagon ally who, in trying to build political support, recently criticized the U.S. mission in Iraq, American officials say.

The diversity in the government could create headaches in Washington if religious and ethnic sensitivities cause clashes within the leadership over anti-insurgency efforts, U.S. officials say.

One senior U.S. defense official speculated that tensions might flare over military operations in Sunni-dominated central Iraq.

“What if you have a Sunni in charge of the Ministry of Defense, and we say we want to go back into Fallouja, and he doesn’t want us to?” the official asked. “Will Jafari be able to run roughshod over him?”

Another potential issue is the status of U.S. bases in Iraq. The Pentagon has made no formal request to establish permanent installations here -- partly for political reasons, officials acknowledge. It is unclear whether Iraqi politicians who will be elected to a permanent government next year will support a long-term U.S. presence.

“It would be silly for us to come out and say we want permanent bases, and then have somebody get elected on a platform of no U.S. bases,” a second senior defense official said. “That could happen.”

At the same time, many inside the Pentagon believe that any permanent U.S. foothold in Iraq would only fuel anti-American sentiment and foster suspicion that the U.S. invaded Iraq to gain control of its oil reserves.

And, with U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf states of Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, as well as in Central Asian countries such as Afghanistan, many believe that there is little strategic need for such facilities here.

Yet for the most part, Pentagon officials profess confidence that they will have a generally smooth relationship on security matters with the new government. “So far, we’re not concerned,” the first defense official said. “But we don’t yet have reason to be concerned.”

Times staff writer Alissa J. Rubin in Vienna contributed to this report.