Looking to themselves for solutions

Times Staff Writers

While Washington waits attentively for the release today of a report calling for new approaches to the Iraq war, leaders in Baghdad have pressed ahead with their own initiatives, some of which differ sharply from Bush administration thinking.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki reaffirmed Tuesday his intention to work with Iran and Syria to stem support for Shiite Muslim militias and Sunni Arab insurgents, an idea likely to be part of today's recommendations from the bipartisan Iraq Study Group led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.).

President Bush has been reluctant to approach either Iran or Syria for assistance.

Other Iraqi proposals dovetail with Bush administration priorities and the U.S. panel's expected recommendations. Maliki's Shiite-led government has pressed for the accelerated training of Iraqi armed forces to quicken the transfer of security responsibilities. And the prime minister has promised to put more effective leaders in his Cabinet, reconcile with Sunnis and dismantle militia death squads blamed for nightly killings.

Few Iraqi politicians have put much stock in the deliberations of the Iraq Study Group or other reviews taking place in Washington.

Most appear preoccupied with gaining the upper hand for a particular sect or ethnicity in the byzantine negotiations that will shape Maliki's promised Cabinet reshuffle. Others say they will reject any Washington proposals on principle.

"We are now under occupation; whatever the occupation produces is considered illegitimate," said Fatah Sheik, an ally of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, whose followers have repeatedly fought U.S. forces and account for one of the two largest Shiite factions in parliament.

There is also scant evidence that Iraq's fractured government will set aside its internal differences long enough to implement any of its proposed initiatives.

Maliki's decision Tuesday to send envoys to Iraq's neighbors to pave the way for a regional conference has the potential to further polarize the debate.

While his government courts Iran and Syria, representatives of the disaffected Sunni minority that dominated Iraq under former leader Saddam Hussein have made overtures to Sunni governments in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt.

Kurdish leaders, for their part, worry that such moves will lead to more foreign interference by hostile neighbors. They prefer to look within Iraq for solutions.

Maliki has made reconciliation with Sunnis leading Iraq's deadly insurgency a central tenet of his administration, promising more meetings aimed at drawing opponents into the political process.

But the prime minister has not specified with whom he plans to negotiate. Not anyone who has killed Iraqis, his government said, and not anyone who has killed Americans.

"Well, if it is an armed resistance, they have to kill somebody," said Wamidh Nadhmi, a Baghdad political analyst.

Many promises have been made, including a softening of the de-Baathification policy that forced thousands of Hussein-era functionaries out of jobs and the disarming of Shiite militias that have targeted Sunnis. But there has been little movement on these initiatives.

The few Sunni politicians who agreed to participate in Maliki's unity government say they are under increasing pressure to pull out.

Maliki, frustrated by accusations that he isn't doing enough to stop the bloodshed, has pressed hard in recent weeks for a quick U.S. transfer of security control to Iraqi forces.

"Our hands are in cuffs," said Ridha Jawad Taqi, a politician with the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Sadr movement's main Shiite rival.

"We can't do anything unless we have the permission" of U.S.-led forces.

Given a free hand, Maliki said, he could rein in the violence in six months.

Maliki's proposal is similar to those in Washington that call for rolling back U.S. combat units and ramping up training by assigning more American advisors to Iraqi units. But with only three out of 10 Iraqi army divisions under direct Iraqi control, there is a long way to go.

Other factions disagree about the capabilities of Iraqi security forces and their allegiance to the government. Shiite militiamen and Sunni insurgents have infiltrated Iraq's army and police, using them as cover to hunt and kill their rivals.

"The government is very weak, and therefore it is not feasible that it should have full control of security," said Sunni lawmaker Adnan Dulaimi, an opponent of the U.S. occupation who nonetheless recently called American troops for help when his house was attacked. "That the Interior Ministry and the Defense Ministry are divided along sectarian lines [one run by a Shiite, the other a Sunni] is the best evidence that the government is not ready."

Deep differences of opinion extend to Maliki's governing coalition. Iraq's two largest Shiite factions, each backed by a private army implicated in the nationwide violence, disagree on a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawals.

Sadr's representatives want U.S. forces out immediately. The cleric's movement protested last week's meeting between Maliki and Bush by suspending its participation in the government.

"Four years after the Americans occupied Iraq there is no excuse to stay here," said Nassar Rubaie, the leader of Sadr's legislative representatives.

"If the Americans leave Iraq today, Iraq will be secure tomorrow."

But most other Shiites acknowledge that Iraq's fledgling forces still need U.S. support and agree with American Democrats on a phased troop withdrawal.

"We need the United States to be with the Iraqi government as a partner, not a commander," Taqi said.

Shiites are also divided on proposals to split Iraq into semiautonomous regions based on sect and ethnicity.

Abdelaziz Hakim, whose Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq has a strong hold on local government in southern Iraq, is pushing for a vote on greater regional authority.

Sadr loyalists oppose weakening the central government.

Such divergent stances on solutions to the war, coupled with an embryonic Iraqi government that has failed to provide basic services or hold parliamentary meetings on a regular basis, threaten to derail any initiatives, whether they come from Washington or Baghdad.

Sunni politician Iyad Samarrai said the government suffered from two major deficiencies: the inability to reach consensus and the inability to carry out policies.

"Many Cabinet ministers are inexperienced and incapable of fulfilling their responsibilities," Samarrai said.

Maliki's plan to replace ineffective Cabinet members with technocrats has broad support -- in principle -- among the politicians ensconced in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone. But negotiations have featured the same jostling for influence that paralyzed previous attempts at reform. And there doesn't appear to be a sense of urgency for results.

"You have this government hidden in the Green Zone protected by Americans and isolated from people, and the streets are left to the terrorists," said Kurdish legislator Mahmoud Othman. "The citizens don't feel they have a government there to protect them."




Times staff writers Suhail Ahmad, Zeena Kareem, Saif Hameed and Said Rifai in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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