Declawing Iraq's militias

As Iraqis have learned, it's tough to rebuild their country in the face of sectarian violence. That's why the new prime minister must make it a priority to control the private militias - now killing more Iraqis than even the insurgents are.

It's encouraging to hear Jawad al-Maliki, Iraq's newly named prime minister, declare that he wants weapons only in the hands of the government - and that paramilitary groups should be merged with the nation's authorized security forces, as required by Iraqi law. Such steps could head off a full-fledged civil war.

But wanting to bring these groups to heel and actually doing so are two very different things.

The former expresses the urgent desire to ratchet down the intense sectarian violence reignited by the bombing of a key Shiite mosque on Feb. 22. The latter reflects the difficulty of getting dozens of militia leaders to overcome a widening religious and ethnic divide and a well-founded distrust of Iraqi government forces to protect them.

It can be done, but to get a sense of the challenge, recall two other sectarian conflicts: Northern Ireland and Lebanon. The "troubles" in Belfast began in 1969, yet it wasn't until last year that the IRA gave up its weapons - eight years after reaching a power-sharing peace accord. In Lebanon, disarming of most militias (Hizbullah is sadly an exception) occurred in tandem with a power-sharing deal between Christians and Muslims and their allies. But that was only after 15 years of civil war.

Doing the same in Iraq could be equally time-consuming and challenging. So far, it's been hands off the Kurdish militia in the north, which is 70,000 strong and maintains its autonomy from the federal government.

And Mr. Maliki - a Shiite - gets his political backing from Shiite groups that also have sizable militias, the dominant ones being the Mahdi army (loyal to powerful cleric Moqtada al-Sadr), and the Iranian-trained Badr Brigades. Will the prime minister, once an anti-Saddam Hussein guerrilla leader in exile, have a Nixon-to-China moment and cross his own supporters and his own tradition?

But these are perhaps more technical issues compared with the root of the challenge, which runs to lack of trust in the government and growing sectarianism.

Shiites feel exposed to Sunni attack and have taken security into their own hands. Their paramilitaries have infiltrated police and Army forces, particularly at the Interior Ministry, which is controlled by a Shiite with militia ties. Sunnis accuse the ministry of unleashing "death squads" against them. Last year, US troops discovered mistreatment and torture of mostly Sunni prisoners held at an Interior Ministry bunker.

Disarming Iraq's militias could take years. But Maliki can start by placing skilled leaders who are not aligned with a militia to head the defense and interior departments, and making sure that Sunnis are not shut out. His new government can identify and monitor militia members absorbed into the armed forces. He can boost competence and loyalty of these forces with increased training.

Above all, he must work mightily to make his new "unity" government a reality. There must be a reason for Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds to start thinking of themselves as Iraqis.

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