Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Is Maliki even relevant anymore?

Reconciliation in Iraq Goes Local

BAGHDAD (AP) — The helicopter trip was brief. But the journey also crossed something huge and ugly: Iraq's bloody sectarian divisions.

Aboard the 70-mile flight from Baghdad to Ramadi was a top Pentagon envoy and a leader of Iraq's biggest Shiite political party. They were paying a visit to Sunni sheiks who have joined the U.S. battle against extremists.

The meeting Sunday was part of budding contacts between Iraq's rival Muslim groups that has shown promise where the nation's political leadership has stalled: trying to find common ground among Shiites and Sunnis.

The exchanges — which have bypassed the stumbling government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — are supported by Washington as part its evolving strategies to tap the influence of religious authorities and tribal chiefs.

Although the outreach is in early and cautious stages, it also reinforces questions about al-Maliki's relevance and ability to bridge Iraq's bloody sectarian divisions.

Washington has grown frustrated by al-Maliki's failure to push through "benchmarks" intended to spur reconciliation, including a formula to share Iraq's oil wealth among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. At the same time, Sunnis have widely turned their backs on al-Maliki, accusing his government of keeping the security forces and other key institutions in the hands of the Shiite majority.

Even some of al-Maliki's main allies — including Shiite political bosses — have opened their own channels to Sunnis outside the official frameworks.

The U.S. military acknowledges it is urging the grassroots-style reconciliation — an apparent extension of its successes to recruit local fighters against extremist groups such as al-Qaida in Iraq.

But it also insists that the central government still has a vital role.

"It's all happening simultaneously. You've got to approach this from all sides," said Col. Steven Boylan, a spokesman for Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

He told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the "bottom-up" contacts would have no chance for momentum "unless the national level was willing to accept it, embrace it and foster it."

One of the most important overtures came Sunday when Ammar al-Hakim — the son and heir apparent of top Shiite politician Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim — paid an unprecedented visit to the mostly Sunni Anbar province for talks with leaders of a U.S.-backed tribal revolt against al-Qaida.

As a sign of Washington's endorsement, Ammar al-Hakim traveled on U.S. military helicopters and a senior U.S. official, Maj. Gen. Michael D. Barbero of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, attended the meeting.

In what could be another landmark visit, the Anbar leaders have said they wanted to travel to the Shiite holy city of Najaf to meet with Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Last month, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Arab who is often at odds with al-Maliki, gave the clearest Sunni endorsement of al-Sistani's status as a national leader. Al-Hashemi met the Iranian-born cleric in Najaf to discuss a 25-point blueprint for political reform the vice president announced last month.

Al-Hashemi is an outspoken critic of perceived sectarian bias by the prime minister. He has looked to make his own political bonds.

He's worked on forging closer ties with al-Hakim's Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and the two main Kurdish parties. His Iraqi Islamic Party, meanwhile, has been distancing itself from militant Sunni groups.

The shift toward the grassroots diplomacy, some experts believe, was first set in motion earlier this year. Washington ignored al-Maliki's protests and began reaching out to Sunni insurgents and tribal leaders to join the fight against al-Qaida in Iraq.

The change of course also helped ease bitterness among Sunni Arabs, who were favored under Saddam Hussein but lost their privileged perch went he was swept away in 2003.

"The new U.S. policy doesn't view the al-Maliki government as its only partner in Iraq," said Mustapha al-Ani, an expert on Iraqi affairs from the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center. "The government is no longer the sponsor of national reconciliation in the eyes of the United States.

Yet al-Maliki is still standing — and even displaying a renewed confidence — because there's no great unifier in the wings who the White House can promote as an alternative.

"Al-Maliki has persuaded the Americans that there is no substitute for him," said senior Shiite lawmaker Reda Jawad Taqi of the Supreme Council.

That means the heat is now off to push the Washington-supported benchmarks and try to spearhead grand schemes for reconciliation.

"The Bush administration is backing away from maximal goals and quietly working toward a workable and doable Iraq," said Vali Nasr, who lectures at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. "Now we have more manageable goals."

Al-Maliki has tried to fend off U.S. pressure and criticism by arguing that the country is not yet ripe for laws seeking to enforce national unity.

His go-slow pleas have met with some support.

"We ask of the Iraqis 'national reconciliation' and bemoan their inability to offer it in ways we can recognize, but a broad, subtle national accord is settling upon the land," Middle East expert Fouad Ajami wrote in a recent article in the weekly U.S. News and World Report.

"This is not a country at peace, and all its furies have not burned out, but a measure of order has begun to stick on the ground," wrote Ajami of Johns Hopkins University.

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