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Sects Maniac

When will we finally take no for an answer? In December, Bushadministration officials began talking about a surge of U.S. troopsto Baghdad to create the military conditions for politicalreconciliation. Such an effort, they said, would only succeed ifPrime Minister Nuri Al Maliki reached courageously across sectarianlines, disarming the Shia militias that buttress his government andsharing political power with Iraq's beleaguered Sunnis. "If theIraqi government does not follow through on its promises," PresidentBush declared when he unveiled the surge plan to the nation, "itwill lose the support of the American people."

And, since December, here's what Maliki has done: First, his aidestold reporters that he didn't want any more U.S. troops in Baghdad.To the contrary, he wanted all U.S. troops out of Iraq's capital.Maliki, it turned out, had a plan of his own. Iraqi troops wouldattack Sunni insurgents only, while ignoring the Shia militias. Inother words, in a city increasingly cleansed of Sunnis and run byMoqtada Al Sadr's brutal Mahdi army, Maliki would hasten the job.

American officials threatened and cajoled, and Maliki supposedlybacked down. But, at a January 11 press conference where he wasexpected to endorse Bush's surge, Maliki didn't show up. Instead, aspokesman told the press that Iraq's government "will not standagainst it" before adding that "what is suitable for our conditionsin Iraq is what we decide, not what others decide for us."

Behind the scenes, it seems, American and Iraqi officials hadreached a deal. Maliki would appoint a commander for Baghdad tooversee Iraq's share of the new military offensive. Maliki agreed,according to The New York Times, because the commander would beless beholden to the Defense Ministry, which is run by a Sunni andclosely monitored by the United States. And, on January 12, he madehis pick, rejecting America's preferred candidates and picking anobscure Shia naval officer. None of the non-Shia parties in Iraq'ssupposed national-unity government had been consulted. "Nobodyasked us," one Sunni legislator told the Los Angeles Times aboutthe man charged with leading the military effort to close Iraq'sgaping sectarian divide. "This is the first I've heard."

Nobody asked the Sunnis about Saddam Hussein's execution, either.There were, after all, good reasons to postpone the hanging. Forone thing, Saddam had only been convicted of murdering Shia (inretaliation, as it happens, for an execution attempt by Maliki'sDawa party). He was still awaiting trial for his crimes againstKurds and other Iraqis. Moreover, he was set to be executed on theday Sunnis begin celebrating the holiday of Eid Al Adha. (Shiabegin celebrating a day later.) And, finally, his executionviolated Iraqi law. In Iraq, a death sentence requires the approvalof the country's president (a Kurd) and two vice presidents (a Shiaand a Sunni). But Maliki, channeling Dick Cheney, insisted he hadall the legal authority he needed and rushed Saddam to the gallows,where the former dictator was mocked by Sadr's henchmen, promptingmass Sunni outrage.

Does this sound like a man interested in courageous efforts to bringSunnis and Shia together? Of course not. Before becoming primeminister, Maliki was known as a Shia hard-liner who wanted to limitSunni influence in the committee drafting Iraq's constitution--andtried to bar virtually all former Baath party officials fromgovernment office. He became prime minister largely because ofSadr, who functions as a kind of Tom DeLay to his Dennis Hastert.After he was sworn in last May, the United States urged him torewrite Iraq's oil law, soften de-Baathification, and rein in theShia militias, all to show Sunnis that he was their prime minister,too. Eight months later, we're still asking.

Maliki's behavior is a big part of the reason so many in the U.S.military opposed the surge. Over the past year, he has repeatedlyblocked them from going after Sadr's men, and, when they havecaptured members of the Mahdi army, he has sometimes intervened tosecure their release. "Repeated reports from our commanders on theground contributed to our concerns about Maliki's government, "wrote National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley last November in amemo leaked to The New York Times. Pressed by the Senate ForeignRelations Committee about Maliki's government last week,Condoleezza Rice lamely replied that "the fact that they didn't actproperly in the past does not mean that they won't act properly inthe future."

As evidence of Maliki's change of heart, Bush administrationofficials are claiming they finally have the green light to goafter Sadr. Except that Maliki's advisers say the opposite,insisting that U.S. troops can only go into the sprawling Shia slumknown as Sadr City with their approval. We are, to put it bluntly,being used. Maliki has only consented to more U.S. troops becausehe thinks they will help him cleanse Baghdad of Sunnis. Already,there are reports that Sadr's men are taking off their uniforms,stashing their weapons, and dismantling their checkpoints. As theygo underground, Maliki will declare the Shia militia problem solvedand push the United States to throw its full weight against theSunni insurgents who are guarding Sunni neighborhoods from Shiatakeover.

This is what it means to send more U.S. troops into the teeth of acivil war. President Bush says we are surging to support Iraqileaders committed to reconciliation across sectarian lines. But theIraqi leaders he's conjuring up no longer live in Iraq. Defeated atthe polls and fearful for their lives, they now reside in Amman,London, or the United States. Maliki, the sectarian, fundamentalistleader of a sectarian, fundamentalist government, has taken theirplace. And, given the political climate in Iraq today, even if hewere overthrown, the likely successors would be just as bad.

"Do we and Prime Minister Maliki share the same vision for Iraq?"wondered Hadley in his November memo. Virtually everything Malikihas done in recent weeks screams no. How much more evidence do weneed, and how many more Americans must die, before we take that nofor an answer?

By Peter Beinart; Peter Beinart is a senior fellow at the Council onForeign Relations.