Iraq Impeding Efforts to Go After Shiite Militias, U.S. Military Says

Times Staff Writer

Senior U.S. military officials have stepped up complaints that Iraq's Shiite-led government is thwarting efforts to go after Shiite death squads blamed in the execution-style killings of Sunni Arabs in neighborhoods across this capital.

Although deadly Sunni Arab rebel attacks remain frequent in Baghdad, U.S. officials, including Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, say death squads affiliated with Shiite militias have become the main factors ratcheting up the capital's death toll from sectarian killings.

Civilian deaths in Baghdad during July and August totaled more than 5,100, according to United Nations figures, and most were caused by the sectarian strife.

However, the 8,000 U.S. troops sent to Baghdad in recent weeks to restore order have been largely prevented from confronting those militias, many of which have ties to Iraqi government officials.

The statements by ranking U.S. authorities complaining about the situation highlight rising American dissatisfaction with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and an increasing willingness to exert pressure on the fledging Iraqi government.

The U.S. forces would like to stage heightened military operations in Baghdad neighborhoods such as Sadr City, a stronghold for anti-U.S. Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr's Al Mahdi militia.

"We have to fix this militia issue," Army Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, commander of day-to-day operations in Iraq, said Wednesday.

"We can't have armed militias competing with Iraq's security forces. But I have to trust the prime minister to decide when it is that we do that."

U.S. officials are anxious for Iraqis to take a stronger role in their country's security because of mounting pressure to withdraw American troops as soon as possible. Rising public discontent in the United States with the war, tired troops on their third and fourth rotations in the Middle East and huge expenditures by American taxpayers are all driving U.S. officials to press the government of Maliki, a Shiite, to quickly take more responsibility.

A map provided by the U.S. military on Wednesday identified nine neighborhoods that have been targeted in a Baghdad security plan, a major effort aimed at ridding the capital of Sunni Arab insurgents and Shiite militias.

However, all but two of these neighborhoods are predominantly Sunni.

Publicly, U.S. military leaders say they are simply conducting operations in areas where they are tracking the most killings, but privately they acknowledge that the Iraqi government has been reluctant to go after Shiite militias.

Tensions increased between the U.S. military and the Iraqi government after the Iraqi army's recent failure to deploy 4,000 troops to Baghdad.

Iraqi officials have attempted to send soldiers from the south to Diyala province to stabilize sectarian strife in the provincial capital, Baqubah, 35 miles north of the capital.

But a U.S. military official with knowledge of combat operations in Iraq said, "We told them that they can't send anybody to Diyala until they give us the troops we need for Baghdad."

The military official, who requested anonymity because of restrictions about speaking to news media about combat operations, also complained that Maliki's government had scrapped a plan to move U.S. and Iraqi troops into Sadr City before the start of the current holy month of Ramadan, a sign of how sectarian political considerations were hampering attempts to quell violence in Baghdad.

U.S. Army Maj. Gen. James Thurman, commander of military forces in the capital, said last week that "one of the sources of death groups are militias."

"I consider that issue a problem that the [Iraqi] government must deal with immediately."

Iraqi government spokesman Ali Dabbagh said Maliki well understood the dangers posed by Shiite militias, but he said that political realities in Iraq could present the prime minister with even greater peril.

"This might create a negative reaction, and it may affect the political situation as well as the security situation in Baghdad," he said, defending Maliki's refusal to allow the U.S. military to raid Sadr City this month.

Dabbagh also said it was unfair to treat the Shiite militias the same as the Sunni Arab insurgents, because, he said, the paramilitaries were reacting to first blows by the rebels.

"Extremists and Saddamist parties are making bombs and killing Iraqis," Dabbagh said. "We do agree that there are revenge killings taking place, but not in the way of the Saddamists -- this is just a reaction. We have to deal with the main causes: There are suicide bombers and car bombs attacking the Iraqis every day."

The American frustration in Baghdad is part of a growing chorus in recent weeks from officials both in Iraq and Washington expressing disappointment that Maliki has not taken a stronger stand against the militias, some of whose members serve in Iraq's army and police forces.

The dissatisfaction comes as scores of corpses -- many mutilated by power drills, knives and multiple gunshots -- continue to arrive at Baghdad's morgues, victims of death squads that officials fear are affiliated with politically backed militias.

The Sadr movement has control of some of Iraq's most powerful ministries, including Health, Transportation and Agriculture. The Badr Organization, a militia affiliated with the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq -- a leading Shiite political party -- and followers of Sadr have a strong influence at the Interior Ministry, which supervises the nation's police forces. Many ministries have their own security forces, which have been implicated in killings.

U.S. officials said they worried that a hands-off stance toward the militias could alienate those Sunni Arabs who have entered Iraqi civil society, including the army. They say they are concerned that Maliki's unity government could fray and that disaffected Sunni Arabs could drift into militancy.

U.S. military leaders described various obstacles facing them as they attempt to quell sectarian violence in Baghdad, including "no-touch lists" that prohibit them from arresting politicians and other high-status individuals, and off-limits areas in Baghdad that the U.S. military may not enter without permission from the Iraqi government.

U.S. military officials said they were also constrained by their desire to see the Iraqi government prove its ability to rule fairly, without regard to narrow sectarian interests and without significant U.S. interference, by resolving the sectarian conflict.

"There's a political piece to this to see if they deal with these guys," said another high-ranking U.S. military official in Baghdad, who also requested anonymity in order to maintain relationships with the Iraqi government.

"I won't deny the fact that there is corruption and problems in some of the ministries, but it's got to be dealt with, and it ought to be dealt with by the prime minister and the folks inside his government."

Instead, Maliki's government has often appeared to respond with ambivalence and occasional hostility to efforts to crack down on Shiite gunmen.

In August, U.S. forces raided Sadr City and battled with suspected militia members in one of the first thrusts of the Baghdad offensive. The prime minister responded by rebuking the American government for conducting the Sadr City incursion without permission from his administration.

Maliki's government also criticized two raids last week that captured suspected Al Mahdi militia leaders in the southern holy city of Najaf and in Baghdad.

In Washington, members of the Iraq Study Group -- a high-profile, administration-backed panel examining U.S. policy in Iraq -- recently held a news conference to say that they believed Maliki had just three months to act against the militias and restore stability.

But some observers say that Americans may have unrealistic expectations for an embryonic government so riven with sectarian and partisan fissures. Even if the Iraqi government had the will to act, it might not be able to control the militias, which U.S. and Iraqi officials contend have splintered into more radicalized and deadly elements.

"For example, Muqtada Sadr was ordered to control the militias, but even he can't control them," said Suha Azzawi, a Sunni Arab politician.

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solomon.moore@latimes.com

Staff writers Julian E. Barnes and Peter Spiegel in Washington contributed to this report.

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