U.S. raises pressure on Iraq's government

Military officials say Shiite leaders thwart efforts to halt killings

September 28, 2006|By Solomon Moore | Solomon Moore,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Senior U.S. military officials complain that Iraq's Shiite-led government is thwarting efforts to go after Shiite death squads blamed in the killings of Sunni Arabs in neighborhoods across the capital city.

The recent statements highlight rising U.S. dissatisfaction with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and an increasing willingness to exert pressure on the fledgling Iraqi government to stage military operations in Baghdad neighborhoods like Sadr City, a stronghold for the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

"We have to fix this militia issue," Gen. Peter Chiarelli, commander of day-to-day operations in Iraq, said yesterday. "We can't have armed militias competing with Iraq's security forces. But I have to trust the prime minister to decide when it is that we do that."

U.S. officials are anxious for Iraqis to take a stronger hand in their country's security because of mounting pressure to withdraw American troops as soon as possible. Rising public discontent with the war in the United States, tired troops on their third and fourth rotations in the Middle East and huge expenditures by American taxpayers are all driving U.S. officials to press the government of al-Maliki, a Shiite, to quickly take more responsibility.

A map provided by the U.S. military yesterday identified nine neighborhoods that have been targeted in a Baghdad security plan, a major effort aimed at ridding the capital of Sunni Arab insurgents and Shiite militias. All but two of those neighborhoods are predominantly Sunni.

Although deadly Sunni Arab rebel attacks remain frequent in the capital, U.S. officials, including U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, have maintained that death squads affiliated with Shiite militias have become the main offenders in Baghdad's rising sectarian violence, which killed at least 5,100 in July and August, according to United Nations figures.

Tensions increased between the U.S. military and the Iraqi government after the Iraqi army's recent failure to deploy 4,000 troops to Baghdad - even as Iraqi officials attempted to send soldiers from the south to Diyala province to stabilize sectarian strife in the provincial capital of Baqouba, 25 miles north of the capital.

"We told them that they can't send anybody to Diyala until they give us the troops we need for Baghdad," said a U.S. military official with knowledge of combat operations in Iraq.

The military official also complained that al-Maliki's government scrapped a plan to move U.S. and Iraqi troops into Sadr City before the Ramadan holy days, a sign of how sectarian political considerations are hampering attempts to quell violence in Baghdad.

A senior U.S. military official who requested anonymity, fearing that his comments could anger the Iraqi government, said American patience is running out on militia killings and partisan intransigence.

"We are now at a time when we have a little bit of influence there. There is going to come a time when I would argue we are going to have to force this issue," the senior U.S. military official said.

The frustration in Baghdad is part of a growing chorus in recent weeks from officials in Iraq and Washington expressing disappointment with al-Maliki's inability to take a stronger stand against militias, some of whose members also serve in Iraq's army and police forces, and tackle basic security problems.

Solomon Moore writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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