Iraqi Shiites Creating Distance From Washington

By SABRINA TAVERNISE

New York Times

November 1, 2006

BAGHDAD, Nov. 1 — In a continued effort to demonstrate their independence from Washington, Iraqi Shiites are pressing a fresh set of conditions on their American supporters, asking for changes in the Iraqi government’s relationship with the United States military.

In a move that seemed crafted more to placate Iraq’s Shiite majority than to influence the broader management of the war, Iraqi leaders have drawn up a set of changes to a United Nations agreement that provides some of the legal basis for American troops here.

The changes, if enacted, could give the Iraqi government more control over its own armed forces, something Iraqi leaders want, but were not likely to change fundamentally the way the war is directed.

The United Nations agreement, which expires on Dec. 31, is not the only source of legal justification for continued presence of American troops here. Another is the Iraqi constitution. Even if the agreement expired, the status of the American military here would not change. What is more, no single Iraqi group truly wants the Americans out.

Iraqi leaders say they cannot accept a continuation of the United Nations agreement, which gives the United States and 27 other countries in its coalition, “the authority to take all necessary measures to contribute to the maintenance of security and stability in Iraq” without attaching some conditions to the original agreement. They say they want more control over their own military to protect vulnerable areas from insurgent attacks.

A common view among American officers in the field, though, is that Iraqi troops, more than three years after the American effort to rebuild the Iraqi forces began, are years away from being able to fight the war on their own.

A 19-member committee made up of Iraq’s top political leaders, its prime minister and its president, has agreed on six conditions, said one Shiite politician who has participated in negotiations. The points are being discussed with senior American military commanders here as well as with officials from the American and British embassies.

They will be codified in a memorandum between Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and President Bush, Shiite lawmakers said, although the type of document is still a subject of intense debate. Iraqis say they will not insist on reopening the case publicly at the United Nations to avoid the risk of not having it extended.

Even so, they could embarrass the Americans by refusing to relent on changes, even as the deadline for extending the United Nations nears or passes. But if that happened, the only serious question would be about the status of foreign forces from other countries, who provide just over 17,000 troops and whose legal status for being here is still more closely bound with the United Nations agreement.

“They agreed on almost all the conditions,” said Sami al-Askari, a Shiite politician whose political bloc has participated in the talks, but “we want legal guarantees that this document will be implemented, otherwise we will have a problem facing the Parliament.”

A spokesman for the American Embassy in Baghdad confirmed that American officials were in talks with the Iraqi government on the subject, but would not give details.

The changes the leaders seek include speeding up the process of handing over control to Iraqi regions for their own security sooner, currently scheduled to be completed in the first half of next year. Under the current arrangement, American forces have full operational control nationally until the end of 2007, and political leaders seek more control over security for portions of the country earlier, according to Mowaffak al Rubaie, Iraq’s National Security Advisor.

“Iraqi leaders are handcuffed,” by the United Nations agreement, said Hadi al-Ameri, a member of the committee and the chair of the Defense and Security Committee in Parliament. “We will not tell the Americans to go, but if they stay it should be according to conditions.”

Mr. Maliki remarked bitterly in an interview with Reuters last week that he could not move one company of Iraqi soldiers without permission from the American military.

The complaint is a striking example of just how far apart Iraqi and American leaders are, at least in their public statements.

Demands for a faster transition to Iraqi control are being made at a time when the 141,000 American forces deployed here remain the indispensable core of the war effort. Shiite officials in the Maliki government have acknowledged that fast-forwarding the move to Iraqi control involves “risks,” an assessment many American officers call an understatement.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in Baghdad, where American and Iraqi officials have said the war will be won or lost. In the stepped-up effort to regain control of the capital that began in August — an effort now admitted by American commanders to be faltering, partly for lack of troops nearly two-thirds of the forces have been American. Only a third of the needed Iraqi forces ever showed up, leaving the effort vastly undermanned.

The Shiite demands spring from a frustration deep within the Shiite leadership over the American approach to the war that has been building for months. Shiites say Americans, particularly Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, have focused unfairly on Shiite-run death squads and that the American military has not been tough enough on Sunni militias.

“There is a feeling that the Americans diverted their support to the Sunni side,” Mr. Askari said.

Mr. Maliki has repeatedly acted to sooth this frustration in recent weeks with policy moves asserting his own independence from the Americans. Last month, he demanded that the American military release a Shiite cleric whom it had suspected of death squad activity, and on Tuesday, he ordered the lifting of an American security cordon here. He has to ask American permission as he does not have operation control of the American forces here, something that Americans will never give and that Iraqis are not expecting to get.

“Now they hear about amnesty for Baathists,” Mr. Askari said, referring to the Sunni-dominated party that ran the country under Saddam Hussein. And Sadr City, the largest Shiite district, “is surrounded from all sides. If it continues like this it is very dangerous.”

Mr. Maliki even refused an American request last month for an amnesty for some prisoners at the end of Ramadan, Mr. Askari said. Many of those in American facilities are Sunni Arabs, and Shiites often say that Americans release far too many of them.

That arguments go to the very heart of the war here, which has shifted from a Sunni-led insurgency to an even deadlier conflict in which Shiite and Sunni militias force members of the other group out of neighborhoods and carry out revenge killings with relative impunity. But while formerly these arguments were the domain of Iraq’s most partisan politicians, Mr. Maliki himself is now putting them forth himself, in a sign of just how strained relations with the American military has become.

They are also deeply troubling to American military commanders, who fear that the government will use the security forces, largely Shiite, selectively to protect Shiites, or in an even darker possibility, as a fighting force on one side of a civil war.

American officials have expressed frustration with the government of Mr. Maliki, saying it has been slow to begin to make changes badly needed to stabilize the country and that action against death squads is just one of them. Mr. Khalilzad detailed a series of reform goals last month in remarks that Mr. Maliki angrily dismissed as “inaccurate.”

Attacks that harden Iraqis against each other continued. At least 18 Iraqis were killed in a series of attacks across the capital on Wednesday, and 35 bodies were found. Casualties mounted in a suicide attack on a wedding party. In all, 23 Iraqis, including 9 children, the bride and the groom, were killed in the blast, The Associated Press reported. Gunmen seized two Sunni coaches from a youth center on Wednesday. One of them taught blind athletes.

The military announced two more deaths on Wednesday, a soldier in Baghdad and a marine in western Iraq on Tuesday, bringing the toll for October to 104.

Iraqi leaders said they expected to submit the new text of the changes by Dec. 1. It must pass through the Parliament before taking effect.