Iraq's tougher stance toward US

The prime minister takes a hard line on the Haditha case - which may complicate US relations.

The Abu Ghraib prison scandal was a contentious topic when Iyad Allawi became Iraq's interim prime minister in June 2004. But Mr. Allawi, appointed by the occupying power, resisted domestic pressure to conduct an Iraqi investigation.

Now, amid charges of violence by US troops against Iraqi civilians, including an alleged massacre in the Sunni village of Haditha, elected Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is showing no such reticence. A critic of the US occupation before taking office, he has charged that such violence by coalition forces is a "daily phenomenon" and "a terrible crime," and demanded that the US turn over to Iraqis information on the Haditha case.

Mr. Maliki's tough stance suggests a new assertion of sovereignty by the Iraqi government, something that actually works to the US's favor. But the allegations, coming as the new government tries to demonstrate control, are likely to complicate both US-Iraq relations and Maliki's task of leading the Iraqi people.

Already, some Sunni religious and political leaders, in particular, are criticizing Maliki, a Shiite, for not being strong enough with the Americans. If his response falls short in their eyes, political relations with the minority Sunni population, already fragile, could become more difficult - and anti-American sentiment could intensify.

"Maliki is being hammered by the Sunnis. He has to worry about the rising fortunes of people like [radical Shiite cleric Moqtada] al-Sadr. So he needs to be able to show some sovereignty," says Iraq expert Henri Barkey, a former State Department analyst now at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. "The trick for the US is to boost this guy, because there may not be another one after him."

A year ago, a minority of members in Iraq's interim national assembly sought a timetable for US troop withdrawal. In the new parliament, Mr. Sadr's supporters are even stronger. That, coupled with the parliamentary presence of a Sunni bloc, has added to pressure for a US withdrawal.

Maliki has a "soft spot" for that viewpoint, says one Iraqi former official who refused to be named because of the sensitive nature of US-Iraq relations. But the prime minister also knows he needs US troops to cope with a worsening security situation in Baghdad and other areas of Iraq, the former official says. As a result, Maliki is likely to seek compromise measures short of withdrawal - including establishing zones that are off limits to US troops and requiring joint US-Iraqi patrols - to try to placate public concerns.

Incidents like the one alleged in Haditha, which can feed Iraqi resentment about living in insecurity, only make Maliki's task harder, some experts say.

"Incidents like Haditha have the effect of widening the gap further between the people and the government, because they leave them feeling like they are totally on their own," says Juan Cole, an Iraq expert at the University of Michigan. Iraqis see their new elected officials operating from inside Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, he says, while they remain "outside" in the crossfire of a counterinsurgency battle and a "civil war."

In that environment, threats to civilians are not uniquely or primarily from US forces. Just this week, more than 50 civilians were kidnapped midday just north of the Green Zone. A Sunni political group accused militias associated with the Shiite-controlled Interior Ministry of carrying out the operation.

On Tuesday, Maliki pledged to implement a new security plan for Baghdad that he said will address mounting sectarian and militia-generated violence.

With such worries, Maliki can't be too tough with the Americans, Mr. Cole says. "The government is in a difficult position because it's not able to tell the Americans to leave or what to do, but at the same time it needs to mollify a public that accuses it of letting American troops operate around the country marauding at will."

Simply "demanding the Haditha file" from the US "is a symbolic gesture that only reveals his dependence on the American side," Cole says. What could begin to remedy that is a formal status of forces agreement, or SOFA, between the US and Iraq that would lay out the functions and limits of US forces, he adds.

"The problem is they have what is essentially a hung parliament" - unable to fill the key defense and interior minister positions - "and that hardly puts them in a position to demand a SOFA," Cole says.

If the Iraqi public comes to see its government as weak or atrophied, that would spell trouble ahead, especially as officials begin to tackle major constitutional issues.

Divisive matters - including the formation of autonomous regions, the dividing of oil revenues, and the status of the northern oil-rich hub of Kirkuk - are slated to be settled by the end of the year. Resolving them was supposed to be facilitated by the inclusion of Sunnis in the new parliament and government, but mounting Sunni criticism of Maliki is just one indication of how difficult progress will be to achieve.

For one thing, Maliki - and his US backers - are discovering that the proudly proclaimed "national unity government" that represents all major population groups may actually be more unwieldy and less able to act.

In a recent report, Iraq expert Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies notes: "Rising participation did not reflect acceptance of the new government or political process, it reflected a steady sharpening of political division along sectarian and ethnic lines."

Some experts calculate that Maliki has fewer than 120 supporters in a 275-seat parliament. "If the Maliki government does not make real headway on security and the constitutional issues," says the former Iraqi official, "then it could go down."

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