Disappointed by the election performance of Iraq’s moderate parties, U.S. officials have established a more modest goal as Iraqi leaders divide power in a new government: preventing religious or nationalist parties from gaining a strong hold on the army and police.
American officials have made it a priority to persuade the winners in the election not to give top posts in the defense and interior ministries to anyone linked to armed groups such as the Shiite Muslim-controlled Badr and Al Mahdi militias, and the Kurds’ peshmerga forces, U.S. and Iraqi officials say.
Washington fears that such ties could again alienate Sunni Muslims -- many of whom are being drawn into the political process -- sparking violence and slowing efforts to withdraw U.S. forces.
“This is the red line,” said one senior U.S. official, who asked to remain unidentified because he was talking about ongoing negotiations.
Yet even at an early stage of negotiations, it is clear that leaders in the winning coalition, many with close ties to militias, intend to fight hard for the posts. The party leaders believe they deserve the fruits of their election victory and also hold bitter memories of how former dictator Saddam Hussein treated Shiites and Kurds.
“It’s hard to get them to forget what can happen when others control the tanks and guns,” the U.S. official said. “They’ve lived it.”
Though the United States was officially neutral in the election, some top officials hoped for a strong showing by moderate secular parties, such as the Iraqi National List of former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Yet Allawi’s slate lost ground in the election, falling to 25 seats from 40 in the last transitional legislature. Meanwhile, the faction of Shiite militant leader Muqtada Sadr became a more important part of the United Iraqi Alliance, the large Shiite coalition that came up just shy of 50% in the new parliament.
U.S. officials are uneasy about the influence of Sadr, who controls Al Mahdi army, one of the largest militias. And they are uneasy about the idea that militias with ties to Iran, including the Badr organization, may have power over Iraq’s military and police.
After focusing on efforts to train the Iraqi army, U.S. officials say, they will shift their attention this year to the police forces, which they say are at least as important in defeating the insurgency.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad signaled Washington’s concern about leadership of the ministries last month after findings that Sunni inmates had been abused at Shiite-controlled prisons.
In the post of interior minister, which oversees the police, “you can’t have someone who is regarded as sectarian,” he told reporters Dec. 19. “You have to have someone who has the confidence of all communities.”
Khalilzad’s view is shared by Saadoun Dulaimi, the transitional defense minister, who is a Sunni and a former officer in Hussein’s army.
“This ministry ... should be the Iraqi Defense Ministry, not the Sunni or Shiite or Badr ministry,” he said in an interview. “That’s why I always say this ministry should be a bridge ... among the Iraqi groups. And that’s why I hope to keep this ministry away from politicians.”
U.S. officials have offered Iraqi leaders a list of more than a dozen former Iraqi military officers they would like to be considered for the defense and interior posts. Iraqis have said the men had creditable records during their service for Hussein; the U.S. military is now looking over their records to make sure.
The senior U.S. official said it would be acceptable for the posts to go to Shiites if they were with secular parties. He cited as one possibility Kasim Daoud, who was national security advisor under Allawi and is a member of Allawi’s coalition.
Iraqi party leaders said the deliberations were at an early stage and pointed out that leaders of the United Iraq Alliance were themselves divided on the issue. Yet several predicted it would be difficult for the Americans to sell their candidates, considering that the party leaders feel strongly about installing their own members and are increasingly unhappy with U.S. efforts to give Sunnis a bigger share of power.
The defense and interior ministers are among the most powerful in the Cabinet, each having authority over tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in contracts.
Some Shiite and Kurdish leaders object to giving either of the posts to Sunnis, saying that most have connections to insurgent groups.
Qubad Talabani, the Washington representative of the Kurdistan regional government and son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, said that in filling these top posts, “the goal should be to find the best person, not to start out with some restrictive rule.”
Strong candidates would have the kind of respect and authority that comes with connections to a major political party, he said. It would be a mistake to give both ministries to one ethnic group, but there is no reason that Kurds shouldn’t control one of the ministries, he said.
Talabani said the two ministries had already been stripped of most of their Sunni staff members. He contended that as a practical matter, it would be difficult for any Sunni minister to exert authority over an organization that was exclusively Shiite and Kurdish.
Juan Cole, a Middle East specialist at the University of Michigan, said it was “pie in the sky” for the U.S. to expect that it could sell a secular candidate when Iraq’s religious parties are strengthening their grip.
“It may be possible for the Americans to leverage their influence to try to get the least objectionable person in the ministry, but when they say they want somebody with zero ties, what world are they living in?” he said.
He said it would be very difficult for Washington to persuade Iraqi officials to accept a minister tied to Allawi’s coalition.
Cole thinks the Americans might have more luck promoting another candidate who has surfaced, Jawad Maliki, a member of the Islamic Dawa Party and an advisor to transitional Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari. Although Dawa has ties to the Iranians, its militia is relatively small and may not concern Washington, Cole said.
The senior U.S. official acknowledged that there had been Shiite resistance to American efforts to empower Sunnis as part of an effort to defuse the insurgency.
Many Shiites suspect that the bid to draw in the Sunnis is no more than “a campaign to deprive them [Shiites] of the fruits of victory that they fairly won at the ballot box,” the U.S. official said.
As Khalilzad has pushed the Shiites to give more ground, there have been more signs of resentment in newspapers and on television, the U.S. official noted. A news program on the TV station operated by the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the main Shiite coalition partners, recently carried footage of an Iraqi cleric waving a rifle and accusing the Americans of trying to cheat Shiites out of what was justly theirs, he said.
The official acknowledged that in pushing the powerful Shiite parties to give up powerful posts, U.S. officials were trying to carry off a delicate task.
“We want them to end up unhappy, but not so unhappy that they’ll go out and start breaking things up,” he said. “That makes it a very tough thing to do.”
Times staff writer Alissa J. Rubin in Baghdad contributed to this report.