Al-Maliki pick draws criticism

Commanders object to his choice for top military post in Baghdad

January 13, 2007|By Louise Roug and Peter Spiegel | Louise Roug and Peter Spiegel,Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has filled the top military job in Baghdad with a virtually unknown Iraqi officer chosen over the objections of top U.S. and Iraqi military commanders, according to officials from both governments.

Iraqi political figures said yesterday that al-Maliki also had failed to consult the leaders of other political factions before announcing the appointment of Lt. Gen. Abud Qanbar.

The appointment is highly significant because it is al-Maliki's first public move after President Bush's announcement that he is sending more troops to Iraq. The prime mission for those troops would be an effort to reduce violence in Baghdad. As the Iraqi commander for the capital, Qanbar would play a central role in that campaign.

In his speech Wednesday in which he announced the troop increase, Bush said that political and sectarian interference in security matters will no longer be tolerated.

"If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people," Bush said. "The prime minister understands this."

But al-Maliki's decision to push through his choice for one of the country's most sensitive military posts - and to reject an officer whom the top U.S. commander, Gen. George W. Casey, considered more qualified - has renewed questions about the prime minister's intentions.

"It's a delicate situation," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish lawmaker who questioned the choice of Qanbar. "It's very dangerous if it turns out that he has affiliations," he said, naming al-Maliki's political party and anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, he said.

U.S. officials are skeptical of Qanbar not only because of the way he was picked, but because they know little about him. Moreover, they have long questioned the degree to which al-Maliki's government is reliant on sectarian figures, particularly al-Sadr. Al-Maliki essentially is asking American officials to take Qanbar on trust at a time when they have little left.

Qanbar, a commander in the navy during Saddam Hussein's reign, has not worked with American military officials, who say they know little about him other than that he hails from Amara, a city in the Shiite-dominated south of Iraq, and that he was taken prisoner by American forces near Kuwait during the first Gulf War.

U.S. commanders have publicly said that officials in al-Maliki's government have intervened several times to block them from combating al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, which is accused of being behind much of the bloodshed in Baghdad. When U.S. forces did raid the militia's stronghold of Sadr City, al-Maliki's government publicly criticized them. On several occasions, al-Maliki ordered the release of suspected militiamen captured in Sadr City, frustrating U.S. commanders on the ground.

The question of whether to directly assault the militia and attack Sadr City, a vast Shiite neighborhood in eastern Baghdad, is one of the most vexing that now faces U.S. forces in Iraq.

Publicly, U.S. officials have insisted that the decision will be left to the Iraqi government. But privately, senior military officials say that new rules of engagement negotiated with the Iraqis would allow them to go into Sadr City and target individual insurgent and militia leaders. As the Iraqi commander, Qanbar could have advance knowledge of U.S. operations. He would command 18 brigades of Iraqi security forces that are supposed to be deployed to work with the Americans.

At least some Pentagon planners appear to relish the opportunity to target the Mahdi Army. "This time we have a commitment from Maliki and other key players in the Iraqi government ... to have a no-holds-barred arrangement for neighborhoods in Baghdad," said a senior military official who requested anonymity to freely discuss military planning. Sadr City "will not be a safe haven" for militias, he said.

But within the Pentagon, not everyone agrees that attacking Sadr City is advisable.

Crucial to the decision will be the incoming commander in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus. He has not commented publicly on tactics he plans to pursue. But for the past two years, he has overseen the development of the military's new counterinsurgency field manual, which appears to argue against a large-scale invasion of a neighborhood such as Sadr City, particularly in the early part of the new Baghdad security campaign.

Louise Roug and Peter Spiegel write for the Los Angeles Times.

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