Promising Troops Where They Aren’t Really Wanted

By SABRINA TAVERNISE and JOHN F. BURNS

New York Times

January 11, 2007

BAGHDAD, Jan. 10 — As President Bush challenges public opinion at home by committing more American troops, he is confronted by a paradox: an Iraqi government that does not really want them.

The Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has not publicly opposed the American troop increase, but aides to Mr. Maliki have been saying for weeks that the government is wary of the proposal. They fear that an increased American troop presence, particularly in Baghdad, will be accompanied by a more assertive American role that will conflict with the Shiite government’s haste to cut back on American authority and run the war the way it wants. American troops, Shiite leaders say, should stay out of Shiite neighborhoods and focus on fighting Sunni insurgents.

“The government believes there is no need for extra troops from the American side,” Haidar al-Abadi, a Parliament member and close associate of Mr. Maliki, said Wednesday. “The existing troops can do the job.”

It is an opinion that is broadly held among a Shiite political elite that is increasingly impatient, after nearly two years heading the government here, to exercise power without the constraining supervision of the United States. As a long-oppressed majority, the Shiites have a deep-seated fear that the power they won at the polls, after centuries of subjugation by the Sunni minority, will be progressively whittled away as the Americans seek deals with the Sunnis that will help bring American troops home.

These misgivings are broadly shared by Shiite leaders in the government, including some whom Mr. Bush has courted recently in a United States effort to form a bloc of politicians from the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish communities that can break Mr. Maliki’s political dependence on the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr. He leads the Mahdi Army, the most powerful of the Shiite militias that are at the heart of sectarian violence in Iraq.

Hadi al-Ameri, the leader of the security committee in Parliament and a close associate of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim — a prominent Shiite leader who met with Mr. Bush last month in Washington, and who has quietly supported the American push to reshape the political landscape in Baghdad — was unequivocal in his opposition to a troop increase. “I’m against any increase in troops,” he said.

Redha Jawad Tahi, another Shiite member of Parliament from Mr. Hakim’s party, took a similar view. “You can’t solve the problem by adding more troops,” he said. “The security should be in the hands of the Iraqis. The U.S. should be in a supporting role.”

The plan sketched out by Mr. Bush went at least part way to meeting these Shiite concerns by ceding greater operational authority over the war in Baghdad to the government. The plan envisages an Iraqi commander with overall control of the new security crackdown in Baghdad, and Iraqi officers working under him who would be in charge of military operations in nine newly demarcated districts in the capital.

The commanders would report to a new office of commander in chief directly under the authority of Mr. Maliki. The arrangement appeared to have the advantage, for Mr. Maliki, of giving him a means to circumvent the Ministry of Defense, which operates under close American supervision. “The U.S. agrees that the government must take command,” Mr. Abadi said.

The arrangements appeared to suggest that Mr. Maliki would have the power to halt any push into Sadr City, the Mahdi Army stronghold that American commanders have been saying for months will have to be swept of extremist militia elements if there is to be any lasting turn toward stability in Baghdad. But along with more authority for Mr. Maliki, the American plan appeared to have countervailing safeguards to prevent sectarian agendas from gaining the upper hand. Bush administration officials said that Americans would be present in the commander in chief’s office and that an American Army battalion — 400 to 600 soldiers — would be stationed in each of the nine Baghdad military districts.

Shiite suspicions of the American troop increase reflect a tectonic shift in the political realities here. Shiites, the principal victims of Saddam Hussein’s repression, had joined with Iraqi Kurds in hailing the American-led invasion in 2003, seeing it as opening their way to power. But once they consolidated their control through two elections in 2005, they began distancing themselves from the Americans, seeing their liberators increasingly as an impediment to the full control they craved.

By contrast, moderate Sunnis, who were deeply alienated by the American occupation at an earlier stage of the war, are now looking to Americans for protection, as Shiite militias have moved into Sunni neighborhoods in a deadly cycle of revenge. On Wednesday, moderate Sunni politicians hailed the idea of more American troops.

The Shiite leaders’ frustrations have grown in recent months as American commanders have retained their tight grip in Baghdad. While the Americans have argued for a strategy that places equal emphasis on going after Shiite and Sunni extremists, the Shiite leaders have insisted that the killing is rooted in the Sunni attempt to regain power through violence and that Shiite militias and revenge killings are an inevitable response.

American officials have warned that with lessening American oversight, Shiite leaders might shift to a sectarian strategy that punished Sunni insurgents but spared Shiite militias. The execution 11 days ago of Saddam Hussein, carried out in haste by the Maliki government over American urgings that it be delayed until the legal paperwork was completed, only reinforced such fears.

With as many as 17,000 additional American troops in Baghdad, the American force level in the capital will rise above 30,000, and many of those, under the Bush plan, will be in American units that are twinned with Iraqi units, or in expanded teams of military advisers that are embedded with the Iraqis, down to the company level.

American generals have acknowledged that the twinning of American and Iraqi units, and the sharp increase in American advisers, will serve the dual purpose of stiffening Iraqi combat performance and providing American commanders with early warning of any Iraqi operations that run counter to American objectives. In effect, the advisers will serve as canaries in Mr. Maliki’s mine, ensuring the American command will get early notice if Iraqi operations threaten to abandon the equal pursuit of Sunni and Shiite extremists in favor of a more sectarian emphasis on going after Sunnis alone.

But if that appeared to set the stage for future tensions between the Americans and the Iraqis, there was much else in the Bush plan that appeared to have been fashioned to avoid an early confrontation with the Maliki government. While the plan set out a range of political benchmarks for the Iraqi leader, it appeared to lack any timelines to force compliance on Mr. Maliki, who has shown in the past months that his willingness to pledge action on issues urged on him by the Americans is more than matched by his resourcefulness in finding ways to defer steps that might incur resistance among Shiite religious groups.

The wish list set out by White House officials was the same as the one the Americans laid down in May, when Mr. Maliki took office: an oil law that promises a fair distribution of future oil revenues between the Shiite and Kurdish populations that sit atop most of Iraq’s oil wealth, and the Sunnis whose heartland is mostly bereft of proven oil reserves; constitutional revisions that will assuage Sunni complaints that their interests were swept aside when Shiite and Kurdish voters approved the charter 15 months ago over Sunni objections; a new de-Baathification law that will lower the barriers that thousands of Sunnis have found in seeking government jobs; and, most important, a militia law that will lay the groundwork for disarming and demobilizing armed groups like Mr. Sadr’s that challenge the government’s monopoly on armed force.

Hard-line Shiite politicians have been saying with growing vehemence that these American goals amount to an attempt to deprive them of the victory they won at the polls, and that instead of placating Sunni Arabs, a minority of about 20 percent in Iraq’s population of 27 million, the United States should stand aside and “allow the minority to lose.” For Americans, whose best road home lies in drawing the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds together, it amounts to a collision with the hard history of Iraq.

Only time will tell whether Mr. Maliki and his associates, with the trends in the war running against them, will take the “breathing space” that White House officials said the American troop reinforcements will give them to decide, at last, that they can refashion that history in a way that brings Iraqis of all groups together and avoids a further slide toward all-out civil war.

Bush Troubled by Video of Hanging

WASHINGTON, Jan. 10 — President Bush told a private gathering of television news anchors and hosts on Wednesday that he was deeply troubled by the handling of the execution of Saddam Hussein.

“I asked the president if he had seen the execution video of Saddam Hussein,” Brian Williams, the NBC News anchor, said on the “Nightly News.” “He indicated that he had and said in his view the way it was handled ranked just below the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in terms of mistakes made thus far in the war.”

A grainy unauthorized recording of the execution showed some of the guards in the room taunting Mr. Hussein moments before his hanging.

In Iraq on Wednesday, The Associated Press reported that Mr. Maliki has named Lt. Gen. Aboud Gambar, an Iraqi general who was taken prisoner of war by American forces during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, as the overall commander of his troops.

General Gambar, a Shiite, will have two assistants, one from the police and one from the army, Iraqi military officers said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the information. General Gambar will report directly to Mr. Maliki, The A.P. reported.

At least 91 people were killed or found dead in Iraq on Wednesday, Reuters reported.

A day after Iraqis and Americans battled insurgents in downtown Baghdad, the area was quiet and empty on Wednesday. The American military said it had detained 21 Iraqis in two raids there.