U.S.-backed goals elusive for Iraq

Times Staff Writer

Iraqi politicians have made little headway in months of backroom wrangling on the so-called benchmarks for continued U.S. support, and observers say it is unlikely they will ever agree on some of the most difficult problems.

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has promised to ensure passage of two measures that the Bush administration considers critical to stabilizing Iraq: a deal on sharing the country’s oil wealth and relaxation of rules barring members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party from the government and military. Yet neither step has made it to the floor of parliament.

Other measures also have languished, including discussion of a plan to disband militias, partial amnesty for insurgents, scheduling of local elections and action on constitutional amendments.


Creating the logjam is government polarization along ethnic and sectarian lines: There is no effective core of moderates to push through compromises, so politicians tend to delay action on troublesome details.

With pressure mounting in Washington for a speedier exit from Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad used his final news conference as U.S. ambassador before stepping down last week to warn Iraqis that time was running out.

“The members of the coalition as well as other countries have made enormous sacrifices to give Iraqis a chance to build a stable and democratic order,” Khalilzad said. “Iraqis must not lose this opportunity, and they must step up and take the tough decisions necessary for success.”

Although U.S. officials remained troubled by the lack of progress on political reconciliation, military officers said they had been heartened by the timely arrival of Iraqi military battalions in Baghdad, which Maliki promised as part of the new U.S.-led buildup.

According to one military official in the capital, all nine promised battalions have arrived there. And Army Maj. Gen. Michael Barbero, deputy director of operations for the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the recently arrived battalions had shown up with more than 90% of their forces.

The first two units had arrived with only 60% and 65% of their troops.

One senior Pentagon official, who spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing negotiations with the Iraqis, said Army Lt. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the U.S. officer in charge of training the Iraqi military, recently pressed the Iraqi government to increase combat pay for Iraqi units being sent to Baghdad and to limit the length of their deployments.

In addition, U.S. officials learned that some of the low deployment numbers were the result of units leaving troops home in order to guard their bases; U.S. and Iraqi officials have adjusted unit numbers and training to make sure such problems were solved.

“We’re feeling like we’re on to something,” the Pentagon official said. “Why didn’t we do that some time ago?”

The political problems are proving more difficult.

A draft oil bill, heralded by U.S. officials as a breakthrough when the Cabinet signed off on the deal Feb. 26, provides only a vague framework for managing Iraq’s most lucrative industry, said one Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

The deal would require Shiite Arabs and Kurds to share their oil riches in the south and north with Sunni Arabs in the largely barren middle belt. But details on how to divvy up the spoils were left to a revenue-sharing bill on which there is no agreement.

Sunni politicians are not satisfied with using a law that could be amended later to resolve the matter.

“There is an idea that we must not just put it in the law but in the constitution,” said Iyad Samarrai, secretary-general of the Sunnis’ main political faction, the Iraqi Islamic Party. But Sunnis are meeting stiff resistance from Kurds, who want greater authority to negotiate contracts with foreign firms and spend the proceeds as they see fit.

Any amendments must go through the same approval process as the original constitution, including a referendum in which changes can be overturned by a two-thirds vote of any three provinces.

That essentially hands the three Kurdish provinces a veto, said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East director for the International Crisis Group. “There will not be any significant changes to the constitution from this process,” he said.

Iraqi politicians said Khalilzad brokered the oil deal, which included a May 31 deadline to submit a complete legislative package to parliament for a vote. But some independent lawmakers say the involvement of the just-departed ambassador may have been counterproductive in the long run. Many Iraqis already viewed the war as a grab for their oil.

“Now, when you ask Iraqis, they say this is an American law,” said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish legislator. “So they think it is a negative thing.”

On his last day in Iraq, Khalilzad also clinched a compromise between the country’s Shiite prime minister and Kurdish president on the status of Baath Party members. The government is Iraq’s biggest employer, and thousands of Baathists lost their jobs soon after the ouster of Hussein in 2003. That became a major source of grievance among the Sunni Arab minority that makes up the backbone of the anti-U.S. insurgency.

The proposal advanced by Maliki and President Jalal Talabani would allow all but the most senior Baathists back into the military and civil service, unless they committed crimes, and provide pensions for those who do not qualify. A panel of judges would decide who was eligible.

But details remain to be worked out, acknowledged Abbas Bayati, a Shiite legislator close to Maliki. They include whether to allow former Baathists into all government institutions, and what to do if the institution that employed them has since been dissolved.

Prominent Shiites, whose sect was persecuted under Hussein, have already lined up against the draft.

“I think there will be great opposition within the parliament concerning this law, and due to its nature, it won’t even be discussed,” said Ali Alami, a Shiite member of the commission assigned to implement the policy.

Maliki has taken other steps to rein in violence and foster reconciliation. He persuaded the powerful Al Mahdi army, led by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, to pull back and allow the new security plan to take effect, resulting in a modest drop in sectarian killing in the capital. And Maliki did not intervene when hundreds of Al Mahdi militiamen were arrested.

But the government has stopped short of attempting to disarm and demobilize the militia, which is blamed for kidnapping and killing thousands of Sunni Arabs in response to persistent attacks against Shiites.

Progress has been even slower on the review of the constitution promised to Sunnis, who might otherwise have refused to vote in the October 2005 referendum that approved the charter. Their participation also paved the way for elections in December of that year.

The committee assigned to conduct the review faces a mid-May deadline but began meeting only in November and has not yet proposed any new language. Sunnis are pushing for a strong central government, whereas Kurds and some Shiites are trying to retain the emphasis on regional control.

Arab and Turkmen representatives also want to delay implementation of a clause that would settle the future of oil-rich Kirkuk by referendum this year, warning that a vote could spark violence. But Kurds insist that Kirkuk was taken from them by force and want it included in their semiautonomous region. Thousands of Kurds fled the city during the 1980s and 1990s when Hussein’s government moved in Arabs from the impoverished Shiite south in an “Arabization” campaign.

Justice Minister Hashim Abdul-Rahman Shibli told the Associated Press on Saturday that the Cabinet had endorsed a recommendation to relocate and compensate Arabs willing to return to their places of origin.

Shibli, a Sunni Arab from the secular Iraqi National List coalition, also announced his resignation Saturday. He cited unspecified disagreements with Maliki’s government. But Osama Nujeifi, a fellow National List lawmaker, said the bloc had requested his resignation over the Cabinet decision, which was recommended by a committee that Shibli led. He said the coalition would fight the decision, which he said would stack any referendum in favor of the Kurds.

Times staff writers Ned Parker, Saif Hameed and Said Rifai in Baghdad and Peter Spiegel in Washington contributed to this report.