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Militia Issue Poses a Hurdle for Iraqi Leader

Times Staff Writer

Iraq’s prime minister-designate continued to send mixed signals about militias, even as the U.S. ambassador said Sunday that disbanding the armed groups was the most important step toward preventing a civil war.

Jawad Maliki, a leading Shiite Muslim political figure who was endorsed as prime minister by parliament Saturday, has 30 days to form a Cabinet that meets the elected body’s approval. But as the politicians begin to haggle over influence and jostle for powerful government posts, the problem of militias has already emerged as the biggest challenge.

In one of his first public speeches after his endorsement, Maliki promised to rein in the militias, but he said he would do so by adhering to a controversial law that requires making them part of the government’s security forces.

“It’s a message in two directions,” said Hassan Bazzaz, a political analyst in Baghdad. “One to those who are scared of the militias and the other message is to the militia people: ‘We will take care of you.’ ”

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A wave of killings by death squads allegedly tied to the security forces has rocked the country. Some suspect that an upsurge in targeted killings of Sunni Arabs is being carried out by Shiite militiamen with ties to powerful political parties and the Interior Ministry.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters Sunday that militias and other unauthorized armed groups were “a serious challenge to stability in Iraq, to building a successful country based on rule of law.”

“There is a need for a decommissioning, demobilization and reintegration plan for these unauthorized military formations so that the monopoly for the use of force will be in the hands of authorized people in the Iraqi government,” he said at a news conference in the northern city of Irbil, the Associated Press reported.

But taking guns out of politics remains a challenge in a country where ascendant political forces have assembled armed groups to back their agendas. Maliki’s own political coalition is supported by two Shiite militias, the Iranian-trained Badr Brigade and radical cleric Muqtada Sadr’s Al Mahdi army.

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Even the country’s U.S.-friendly Kurdish president appears unwilling to lay down arms. On Sunday, Jalal Talabani, speaking to reporters in Irbil, defended the 70,000-strong Kurdish peshmerga militia as a “regulated force.” “It seems like the Kurds always want an exception,” said Izzat Shahbandar, a secular legislator from former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s electoral slate.

Many Shiite politicians, who control a majority of seats in parliament, refuse to refer to their armed wings as militias, and dismiss charges that members of the Iraqi security forces are loyal to Shiite clerics such as Sadr rather than Baghdad.

Ali Adib, a senior member of the Islamic Dawa Party and a Shiite member of parliament for the United Iraqi Alliance, the main Shiite bloc, said in an interview Sunday that the militia problem was “exaggerated.”

Besides, “we’re not the only ones who are responsible for security,” he said. American officials “let the elements of the past regime into the security forces. Even criminals that were released from the prisons were allowed into the security forces. We need to disinfect and clarify the security forces.”

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Maliki’s past statements on security issues have rarely been in tune with U.S. efforts to rein in abuses. Maliki often took the side of the Interior Ministry, Adib said. “He complained that they had no authority to conduct operations and tried to give the Ministry of Interior more authority.”

Maliki has suggested that militia members could get jobs with Iraqi security forces so that weapons would “only be in the hands of the government.”

Some Sunni politicians, who helped force former Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari to step aside, say Maliki is playing politics with an explosive issue.

“He announced that he will merge militias with the security forces instead of bringing those who committed crimes and atrocities to justice,” said Mohammed Bashar Amin, a spokesman for the Muslim Scholars Assn., a Sunni group. “Thousands of Iraqis have been killed by those militias.

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“His words are frustrating and indicate that he will follow the same path as Jafari.”

At the same time, Maliki’s political future rests on the continued support of Sadr, whose Al Mahdi militia is believed by U.S. officials to be behind many of the recent sectarian killings of Sunnis.

“He has a very hard task in front of him, especially in dealing with the militia,” said Salman Jumaili, a spokesman for the Iraqi Islamic Party, a leading Sunni political group. “The Sadr [faction] supports him, but he has to defuse their militia ... to comply with the national unity project.”

Maliki’s predecessor, Jafari, was criticized by Americans, Sunnis and secular Iraqi politicians as being too sectarian, and eventually was rejected as head of the next government.

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Maliki’s message about militias shows a maturing politician, working in a difficult environment, who understands that his new job demands a more subtle rhetoric, said Bazzaz, the analyst.

“He has to be more elastic about things. He cannot speak in the same tones” as before, Bazzaz said. “Politics is politics, in Iraq as in Washington.”

Despite talk of a national unity government, sectarian bloodshed and insurgent attacks continued.

On Sunday, three U.S. soldiers were killed when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb northwest of Baghdad, according to the military. At an entrance to the capital’s Green Zone, a rocket killed five people and injured three, police said.

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Authorities recovered the bodies of two men, killed execution-style and dumped near a hospital in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood. Elsewhere in the capital, the bodies of six men were found stuffed inside the trunks of two cars. They had been blindfolded and handcuffed and bore signs torture.

South of Baghdad in Mahmoudiya, a roadside bomb killed an adult and a child and wounded seven other children, the U.S. military said.

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Times staff writers Saif Hameed, Raheem Salman, Zainab Hussein and Borzou Daragahi in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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