Maliki pledges to treat militants with an iron fist

Times Staff Writer

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki promised Wednesday to crack down on Shiite Muslim militias and Sunni Arab insurgents, warning that no one -- not even political ally Muqtada Sadr -- would be above the law.

“We will not allow any politicians to interfere with this Baghdad security plan ... whether they are Sunnis or Shiites, Arabs or Kurds, militias or parties, insurgents or terrorists,” Maliki said in a rare interview.

The prime minister’s comments appeared to align his government’s security plan with the Bush administration’s call to confront Shiite militias. But in other remarks, Maliki underscored his differences with the U.S., suggesting that American miscalculations had worsened the bloodshed in Iraq, and warning that his patience for political negotiation with warring factions was wearing thin.


“When military operations start in Baghdad, all other tracks will stop,” Maliki said. “We gave the political side a great chance, and we have now to use the authority of the state to impose the law and tackle or confront people who break it.”

U.S. officials have said that renewed military operations should go hand in hand with efforts at political reconciliation between warring Shiites and Sunnis.

Maliki said if Iraqi security forces were given sufficient training and equipment, they could stabilize the country enough to allow the withdrawal of U.S. troops starting in three to six months -- a period in which President Bush’s proposed troop buildup would still be underway.

He said if better U.S. training and supplies had come earlier, lives could have been saved.

“I think that within three to six months our need for the American troops will dramatically go down,” Maliki said. “That’s on the condition that there are real strong efforts to support our military forces.”

The U.S.-Iraq security plan involves sending 21,500 more American troops to Iraq and 8,000 to 10,000 Iraqi forces to Baghdad in an effort to quell the civil war between Sunnis and Shiites that on average kills more than 100 people a day.


Maliki said Iraqi security forces this week had detained 400 Shiite militiamen affiliated with Sadr, a radical Shiite cleric whose followers constitute part of Maliki’s political base. He offered no further details.

Return to political form

The interview, which took place in a pavilion inside the heavily fortified Green Zone, was a return to the freewheeling style that characterized Maliki’s political manner before he became prime minister last year.

When asked whether the Bush administration needed him now more than he needed the administration, Maliki laughed uproariously, calling it an “evil question.”

Throughout, Maliki appeared confident and seemed to relish the chance to respond to statements by Bush and U.S. officials, including allegations that his government had botched the hanging of deposed leader Saddam Hussein and had not done enough to stop the sectarian violence.

Commenting on a recent statement by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, he said, “Rice is expressing her own point of view if she thinks that the [Iraqi] government is on borrowed time,” humorously suggesting that it might be the Bush administration that is on borrowed time.

“I understand and realize that inside the American administration there is some kind of a crisis situation, especially after the results of the last election,” he said.

Maliki said suggestions by Bush officials that the U.S. did not fully support his government played into the hands of insurgents.

“I believe such statements give a morale boost to the terrorists and push them toward making an extra effort, making them believe they have defeated the American administration,” Maliki said. “But I can tell you, they haven’t defeated the Iraqi government.”

Concern all around

The widening split between the U.S. and Iraqi governments comes at an inopportune time.

Maliki has promised to carry out a security plan to halt the civil war, but his government has been riddled with sectarian fighting and corruption.

The Bush administration is under fire in the U.S. over the Iraq security plan. The strategy to send more American troops is being resisted by many Democrats, who control the House and the Senate.

In Washington on Wednesday, a group of senators introduced a nonbinding resolution opposing the troop buildup.

In the Middle East, there is great concern that Iraq’s civil war could spill over into neighboring countries.

When Rice visited Kuwait this week, officials told her that the U.S. needed to start talks with Syria and Iran in order to ease the violence in Iraq. But the White House has resisted the suggestion, also put forward by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.

U.S. rhetoric directed at Iran has become more aggressive even as Iraq is working to strengthen its ties with its eastern neighbor and largest trade partner.

When American forces detained five Iranians in northern Iraq last week, some Iraqi officials were angered by what they saw as U.S. interference in their foreign affairs.

In the interview, Maliki asserted his government’s independence from U.S. interests in the region. But he underscored that the U.S. and Iraqi governments shared basic goals for his country: stability and prosperity.

“The success that can be achieved in Iraq will be a success for President Bush and the United States, and vice versa,” Maliki said. “A failure here would be a failure for President Bush and the United States.”

He took issue with Bush’s contentions during a PBS interview Tuesday that Maliki’s government “has still got some maturation to do,” and that it had botched Hussein’s execution by allowing Shiite guards to taunt the former leader and videotape his hanging.

Maliki said that Hussein and his codefendants were given a fair trial, and that it was his government’s constitutional prerogative to carry out the death penalty. He said Hussein was shown greater respect than the former president gave to his rivals.

Maliki appeared to bristle at Bush’s criticism, but he acknowledged that “mistakes had happened.” He said he had personally given orders to his deputies to treat Hussein with respect before and after he was hanged.

He said the pressure Bush was feeling might have prompted the critical remarks.

“Maybe this has led to President Bush saying that he’s sorry, or he’s not happy, about the way the execution happened.”