BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The man selected to lead Iraq continued to send mixed signals on the critical issue of dismantling militias, even as the U.S. ambassador said yesterday that disbanding the groups is the single most significant step in preventing civil war.
Jawad al-Maliki, a Shiite Muslim political figure endorsed Saturday as prime minister by Iraq's new parliament, has 30 days to form a Cabinet that meets the elected body's approval. But as Iraqi politicians haggle over influence and jostle for government posts, the problem of militias has emerged as the biggest challenge.
In one of his first speeches after his endorsement, al-Maliki promised to rein in the militias, but said he would do so by adhering to a controversial law that requires making them part of the government's security forces.
"It's a message in two directions," said Hassan Bazzaz, a political analyst in Baghdad. "One to those who are scared of the militias and the other message is to the militia people: `We will take care of you.'"
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said yesterday that militias and "death squads" are "a serious challenge to stability in Iraq to building a successful country based on rule of law."
But taking guns out of politics remains a challenge in a country where political groups have assembled armed forces to back their agendas.
Al-Maliki's coalition is backed by two Shiite militias, the Iranian-trained Badr Brigades and radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.
Even the country's Kurdish president appears unwilling to lay down arms. Jalal Talabani, speaking yesterday to reporters in Erbil, defended the 70,000-strong Kurdish peshmerga militia as a "regulated force."
"It seems like the Kurds always want an exception," said Ezzat Shabander, a secular legislator from former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's electoral slate.
Many Shiite politicians, who control a majority of seats in the new parliament, refuse to refer to their armed wings as "militias" and dismiss charges that members of the Iraqi security forces are loyal to Shiite clerics such as al-Sadr, rather than the national government.
Ali Adeeb, a senior member of the Dawa party and a Shiite member of parliament for the United Iraqi Alliance, the main Shiite bloc, said yesterday that the militia problem is "exaggerated."
Besides, "we're not the only ones who are responsible for security," he said. U.S. officials "let the elements of the past regime into the security forces. Even criminals that were released from the prisons were allowed into the security forces. We need to disinfect and clarify the security forces."
Some Sunni politicians, who along with Kurds were responsible for forcing interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to step aside, say al-Maliki is playing politics with an explosive issue.
At the same time, al-Maliki's political future rests on the continued support of al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army is believed by U.S. officials to be behind many of the sectarian killings of Sunnis. Al-Sadr's supporters have become key supporters of al-Maliki, helping the Dawa party fend off a challenge from a rival Shiite group within the Shiite coalition.
Al-Jaafari, al-Maliki's predecessor, was criticized by Americans, Sunnis and secular Iraqi politicians as being too sectarian, and eventually rejected as head of the next government, paving the way for al-Maliki's ascent.
Louise Roug writes for the Los Angeles Times.