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In Baghdad, Bush Policy Is Met With Resentment

NY Times | January 12, 2007 
JOHN F. BURNS and SABRINA TAVERNISE

Iraq's Shiite-led government offered only a grudging endorsement on Thursday of President Bush's proposal to deploy more than 20,000 additional troops in an effort to curb sectarian violence and regain control of Baghdad. The tepid response immediately raised questions about whether the government would make a good-faith effort to prosecute the new war plan.

The Iraqi leader, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, failed to appear at a news conference and avoided any public comment. He left the government's response to an official spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, who gave what amounted to a backhanded approval of the troop increase and emphasized that Iraqis, not Americans, would set the future course in the war.

Mr. Dabbagh said that the government's objective was to secure the eventual withdrawal of American troops, and that for that to be possible there had to be security for Iraqis. “If this can be achieved by increasing either Iraqi or multinational forces,” he added, “the government, for sure, will not stand against it.”

Mr. Dabbagh suggested that much about the Bush plan depended on how circumstances in Iraq would evolve over the coming months — an echo, in its way, of senior Bush administration officials. They have implied that they might halt the month-by-month inflow of additional troops if they think Mr. Maliki is failing to meet the political and military benchmarks Mr. Bush identified as the Iraqi government's part in making the new war plan work.

“The plan can be developed according to the needs,” Mr. Dabbagh said. Then he added tartly, “What is suitable for our conditions in Iraq is what we decide, not what others decide for us.”

The spokesman's remarks, and a similarly dyspeptic tone that was adopted by Shiite politicians with close ties to Mr. Maliki, pointed to the double-bind Mr. Bush finds himself in. Faced with low levels of public support for his new military push and a Democratic leadership in Congress that has said it will fight him over it, he also confronts the uncomfortable prospect of foot-dragging in Baghdad over the troop increases and the benchmarks he has set for the Iraqis.

While senior officials in Washington have presented the new war plan as an American adaptation of proposals that were first put to Mr. Bush by Mr. Maliki when the two men met in the Jordanian capital of Amman in November, the picture that is emerging in Baghdad is quite different. What Mr. Maliki wanted, his officials say, was in at least one crucial respect the opposite of what Mr. Bush decided: a lowering of the American profile in the war, not the increase Mr. Bush has ordered.

These Iraqi officials say Mr. Maliki, in the wake of Mr. Bush's setback in the Democratic sweep in November's midterm elections, demanded that American troops be pulled back to the periphery of Baghdad and that the war in the capital, at least, be handed to Iraqi troops. The demand was part of a broader impatience among the ruling Shiites to be relieved from American oversight so as to be able to fight and govern according to the dictates of Shiite politics, not according to strictures from Washington.

What transpired, in Mr. Bush's speech on Wednesday night, appears to have been a hybrid: a plan that aims at marrying the Maliki government's urgency for a broader license to act with Mr. Bush's determination to make what American officials here see as a last-chance push for success in Iraq on American terms. And that, as Mr. Bush made clear on Wednesday, implies objectives that will be difficult — many Iraqis say impossible — to square with Mr. Maliki's goals.

The differences seemed clear on Thursday as Iraqis responded to Mr. Bush's speech. In the streets of Baghdad, reactions followed, broadly, the familiar pattern in a city that is more and more divided on sectarian lines. Many Shiites said Iraq's own security forces, which are predominantly Shiite, should be left to do the job of stabilizing the city, while many Sunnis, shocked by the violence of Shiite death squads in recent months, said they would welcome the Americans if they could rein the sectarian killing in.

Mr. Dabbagh, the government spokesman, emphasized the parts of the Bush plan that best suited the Maliki government's political ambitions. He said the “good thing in this plan is that it determines that responsibility should be transferred from the Americans to the Iraqis.” This was a prime point with Mr. Bush, too, when he said that the role of American troops under the new plan would be to “help the Iraqis” secure neighborhoods in Baghdad, protect the local population and maintain security in areas that American and Iraqi forces have cleared.

Within hours of Mr. Bush's speech, American commanders were meeting with their Iraqi counterparts in Baghdad to work out the details of a new command arrangement that would give Mr. Maliki a direct role in overseeing the new crackdown. The Iraqis named a commander for the operation, Lt. Gen. Aboud Gambar, a Shiite from southern Iraq who was a top general in Saddam Hussein's army until the American-led invasion in 2003.

General Gambar will report directly to Mr. Maliki, outside the chain of command that runs through the Defense Ministry, which the Maliki government has long viewed as a bastion of American influence, and, because the defense minister is a Sunni, of resistance to Shiite control. General Gambar will have two deputies, one for the heavily Shiite east part of Baghdad, another for the mostly Sunni west part, and they will oversee nine new military districts, each assigned an Iraqi brigade.

As details of the Bush plan became known on Wednesday, Iraqi officials said that the new arrangements would give Iraqis operational control of the new push in Baghdad. But Mr. Dabbagh and others were quick to pull back on Thursday, acknowledging that Baghdad would remain under American operational control at least until later this year. American officials noted that American officers would be assigned to General Gambar's headquarters, that an American battalion would be twinned with each Iraqi brigade and that every Iraqi unit, down to the company level, would have American military advisers.

If this fell a long way short of the plan for full Iraqi control in Baghdad that Mr. Maliki set out in November, his officials were at pains to say that the prime minister would decide the issue of most concern to the Iraqi leader: whether, and when, Iraqi and American forces would be allowed to move in force into Sadr City. That Shiite working-class district in northeast Baghdad is the stronghold of the Mahdi Army, the most powerful of the Shiite militias, and the main power base of Moktada al-Sadr, the Mahdi Army leader, whose parliamentary bloc sustains Mr. Maliki in office.

“It's been agreed that in order to succeed they have to consult,” Mr. Dabbagh said — a bland requirement as he stated it — but some distance from the formula put forward at Washington briefings on the new plan. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, at a news conference on Wednesday, said that American and Iraqi troops would be free to go into “all parts of Baghdad, including Sadr City” and that one benchmark in the plan was that there would be no “political interference” with military operations or attempts to protect death squad leaders.

That appeared to be an allusion to the past American experience with Mr. Maliki, who has consistently refused to sanction major offensives in Sadr City. On at least one occasion, he intervened to secure the release of a man captured by American troops and identified by American commanders as a death squad leader with links to Mr. Sadr. Mr. Maliki's argument has been that the solution to the problem of militias, including Mr. Sadr's, must be political, not military, but he has simultaneously postponed any action on a new law to disarm and demobilize the militias.

One of Mr. Maliki's political allies, Sheik Khalid al-Attiya, who is deputy speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, said Thursday that he expected the benchmarks set by Mr. Bush to take 6 to 12 months to be met. With American commanders in Baghdad saying they hope to have the main parts of the city stabilized by late summer — allowing American troops to be pulled back to bases outside the city as Mr. Maliki has demanded — the Americans seem likely to run out of patience with Mr. Maliki long before Mr. Attiya's timetable plays out.

A Shiite political leader who has worked closely with the Americans in the past said the Bush benchmarks appeared to have been drawn up in the expectation that Mr. Maliki would not meet them. “He cannot deliver the disarming of the militias,” the politician said, asking that he not be named because he did not want to be seen as publicly criticizing the prime minister. “He cannot deliver a good program for the economy and reconstruction. He cannot deliver on services. This is a matter of fact. There is a common understanding on the American side and the Iraqi side.”

Views such as these — increasingly common among the political class in Baghdad — are often accompanied by predictions that Mr. Maliki will be forced out as the crisis over the militias builds. The Shiite politician who described him as incapable of disarming militias suggested he might resign; others have pointed to an American effort in recent weeks to line up a “moderate front” of Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish political leaders outside the government, and said that the front might be a vehicle for mounting a parliamentary coup against Mr. Maliki, with behind-the-scenes American support.

Hussein's Will Sought No Mercy

CAIRO, Egypt, Jan. 11 (AP) — Hours before Saddam Hussein's execution, the ousted Iraqi dictator asked his lawyers not to appeal for his life and accused the United States and Iran of collaborating to hang him, according to a copy of his will.

Mr. Hussein gave his chief lawyer, Khalil al-Dulaimi, the right to “decide whatever is related to me except appealing for the life of Saddam Hussein to any of the presidents, kings, Arabs or foreigners,” reads a copy of the will obtained by The Associated Press.

He also asked to be buried in either Ouja, his birthplace, or in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, where many of the country's Sunni Arab insurgents are fighting, depending on his daughter Raghad's decision. He was buried in Ouja.

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