Top Iraqis pull back from key U.S. goal

Reconciliation seen unattainable amid struggle for power

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service

BAGHDAD — For much of this year, the U.S. military strategy in Iraq has sought to reduce violence so that politicians could bring about national reconciliation, but several top Iraqi leaders say they have lost faith in that broad goal.

Iraqi leaders argue that sectarian animosity is entrenched in the structure of their government. Instead of reconciliation, they now stress alternative and perhaps more attainable goals: streamlining the government bureaucracy, placing experienced technocrats in positions of authority and improving the dismal record of providing basic services.

"I don't think there is something called reconciliation, and there will be no reconciliation as such," said Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, a Kurd. "To me, it is a very inaccurate term. This is a struggle about power."

Humam Hamoudi, a prominent Shiite cleric and parliament member, said any future reconciliation would emerge naturally from an efficient, fair government, not through short-term political engineering among Sunnis and Shiites.

"Reconciliation should be a result and not a goal by itself," he said. "You should create the atmosphere for correct relationships, and not wave slogans that 'I want to reconcile with you.' "
The acrimony among politicians has strained the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki close to the breaking point. Nearly half of the cabinet ministers have left their posts. The Shiite alliance in parliament, which once controlled 130 of the 275 seats, is disintegrating with the defection of two important parties.

Legislation to manage the oil sector, the country's most valuable natural resource, and to bring former Baath Party members back into the government have not made it through the divided parliament. The U.S. military's latest hope for grass-roots reconciliation, the recruitment of Sunni tribesmen into the Iraqi police force, was denounced last week in stark terms by Iraq's leading coalition of Shiite lawmakers.

"There has been no significant progress for months," said Tariq al-Hashimi, one of Iraq's two vice presidents and the most influential Sunni politician in the country. "There is a shortage of goodwill from those parties who are now in the driver's seat of the country."

Iraqi leaders say there are few signs that Maliki's government is any more willing to share power now than 15 months ago, when he unveiled a 28-point national reconciliation plan. A key proposal then was an amnesty for insurgents -- an "olive branch," Maliki said at the time -- to bring members of the resistance into the political fold.

But over the summer and fall of 2006, sectarian violence rose to its highest levels, driving thousands of people out of mixed neighborhoods and pushing Sunni and Shiite politicians further apart. The amnesty never materialized, nor has the reconciliation.

Some politicians remain hopeful. Hashimi, the Sunni vice president, recently drafted what he calls the "Iraqi National Compact," a 25-point statement of principles that condemns all types of extremism and sectarian discrimination.

Hashimi's statement calls for candid dialogue among Iraq's various factions. On Sept. 27, he met with the country's most respected Shiite religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a rare and symbolic gesture that underscored the possibility of cooperation across the sectarian gap. Hashimi said Sistani expressed support for the national compact while requesting minor editing of the document.

"I have started from scratch. I know that," Hashimi said. "This will create a new environment between the Iraqi politicians to talk on sensitive issues face to face in an attempt to alleviate the reciprocal paranoia between the Iraqi sects and ethnic groups."

But Hashimi said he sensed no fundamental willingness from Maliki's government to reconcile with the Sunnis. It has been two months since the largest Sunni coalition walked out of the cabinet when its list of 11 far-reaching demands were not met. Hashimi acknowledges some progress on the demands — such as a program for releasing prisoners during the holy month of Ramadan — but calls the steps insufficient.

"Pulling out from the government was not a target, it's just a means, a way to encourage the government to perform in a better way," Hashimi said.

"The response of the government has been very, very slow."
Sunni leaders sense that their Shiite counterparts believe the era of Sunni leadership in Iraq is gone for good -- "that Humpty Dumpty had a fall and cannot be put back together again" as one senior Iraqi official put it -- and Sunnis should accept the new reality. Sunni leaders, however, tend to express more limited goals than reclaiming the government.

"I, as deputy prime minister responsible for the portfolio of security and services, until now, have never been consulted on any security operation taking place in Iraq," said Salam Z. al-Zobaee, Iraq's second-highest Sunni official. "The Sunnis, even if they've been participating in the government, are still marginalized in decision-making."

The idea of "reconciliation" in Iraq has always been short on specifics. To Sunnis, it tends to mean Shiites will release their grip on decision-making, allow them greater influence in the government, crack down on militants regardless of their sect and promote peaceful cooperation between politicians. Sunnis demand the release of thousands of prisoners who have never been charged, the purging of all militiamen from the Iraqi security forces and influence in military decisions.

To Shiites, reconciliation is a process fraught with risks that Sunni "supremacists" will attempt to seize their former position of authority over the majority Shiites. Many Shiites believe that reconciliation requires punishing those who, during Saddam Hussein's government, ruthlessly killed and repressed Shiites and Kurds.

"It's clearly perceived by the government that reconciliation is clearly a winner for the Sunnis and not a winner for the Shias," said Brig. Gen. Joseph Anderson, chief of staff for the second-ranking U.S. commander in Iraq. "The question becomes: How do you start balancing that scale a little bit?"

Many Shiites, still aggrieved by the crimes committed against them under Hussein, are not ready for new programs or legislation attempting to force a balance into existence.

"You cannot have reconciliation without justice, and justice has not been accomplished yet in Iraq. They have tried and executed not more than 10 people, Saddam and his people, and that is not enough," a senior Shiite government official said on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. "The same people who were killing Iraqis at the time of Saddam in the name of the state and in the name of national security are doing it now with the insurgents."

Most of the U.S.-backed "benchmarks" for Iraqi political progress — intended to push along reconciliation — have so far not been reached. The government has not passed legislation that would govern the country's oil resources or allow former Baath Party members to reclaim government jobs, nor has it completed a review of the constitution or enacted an amnesty program. A recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office judged that only three of 18 benchmarks had been met.

"The polarization of Iraq's major sects and ethnic groups and fighting among Sh'ia factions further diminishes the stability of Iraq's governing coalition and its potential to enact legislation needed for sectarian reconciliation," the report concluded.

Several Iraqi officials say they are hamstrung by the very government structure they are operating within. In 2003, the U.S. government handpicked a 25-member Iraqi Governing Council -- including 13 Shiites and five Sunni Arabs -- that would mirror the population's majority Shiite makeup. In 2005, when voters chose political parties rather than individual candidates, politicians' loyalties to sect over any other criteria solidified.
The resulting Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs emerged as the dominant political actors, with individual politicians subservient to the group. Leadership positions were parceled out in a de facto quota system to achieve at least nominal balance among the rivals.

This imperfect balance of power, deemed the "national unity government," entrenches these sectarian divisions and prioritizes a politician's ethnic or sect background above experience or ability, Iraqi officials say. The system makes selecting Iraqi ambassadors or cabinet ministers an exercise in horse-trading subject to bitter disputes.

"Iraq cannot be ruled by this notion of a national unity government, because that has been a recipe for paralysis," said Salih, the Kurdish deputy prime minister. "We need a government of majority, comprising the moderates, representing the key communities of Iraq and delivering to its constituents, and willing to take on the extremists."

The fragmentation of Iraq's leading Shiite coalition, while potentially leading to more instability, paralysis in parliament and gun battles in the streets, might be an opportunity to lessen the reliance of politicians on their sectarian blocs, one senior government official said.

"We need to break that mold of politics here, this politics where sectarian politics is the norm," the official said on the condition of anonymity because of concern about publicly supporting the disintegration of the Shiite bloc.
The Iraqi government plans to consolidate its cabinet and install skilled technocrats in place of inexperienced political appointees, officials said. Hamoudi, the Shiite member of parliament, said he expected that the 37 cabinet seats would be reduced to 22 or 23 in coming months. Certain public service ministries, such as Justice, Transportation, Health and Agriculture, would in theory become "independent" from political parties, he said.

"It's critical because now the feeling is that the national unity government has proven to be a failure in the region -- in Palestine, in Lebanon, and now in Iraq," Hamoudi said. "We need a strong government that conducts its duty and not that looks good."

Some potential progress toward reconciliation has run into recent trouble. The U.S. effort to recruit Sunni tribesmen to join the police force and fight the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq was strongly opposed last week by Shiite officials, who asserted that the Sunni recruits were killing innocent people under the guise of fighting insurgents.

"We demand that the American administration stop this adventure, which is rejected by all the sons of the people and its national political powers," the leading Shiite political coalition said in a statement. "Their elements are criminals who cannot be trusted or relied upon."

Special correspondent Saad al-Izzi contributed to this report.