What We Need To Get Right

I'm glad that the president has finally admitted to some mistakes in Iraq. But what worries me is that he still seems to be persisting in one important error. In his press conference last week, the only concrete plan he outlined to move forward--on a path out of Iraq--was a better-functioning Iraqi Army and police force. In this respect Bush is hardly alone. Many who criticize him on the right and left say that the training of Iraqi troops is happening too slowly, or that we need more American troops, or that we should flood the city of Baghdad with forces to stabilize it. But all of these solutions are technocratic and military, while the problem in Iraq is fundamentally political. Until we fully recognize this, doing more of the same will accomplish little.

Initially the Sunnis thought they could use military power--through the insurgency--to get their way. Now many Shia think they can use military power--through the government's security services and militias--to get their way. For our part, despite the denials, we believed that what we needed was more troops, Iraqi troops. Except that 260,000 Iraqi soldiers and police are "standing up" and it hasn't led to any significant withdrawal of Americans. The reality is that only an effective political bargain will bring about order. There needs to be a deal that gives all three communities strong incentives to cooperate rather than be spoilers.

While the United States can push hard in this direction, forging this bargain falls largely on the shoulders of the new prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki. I met Maliki a year ago in a small safe house in Baghdad, where he sat on a sofa across from me, fingering his prayer beads with practiced precision. He was then a Dawa Party official, with no position in the government. He is a big, strapping man and came across as straightforward and confident. He also came across as a hard-line Shia, unyielding in his religious views and extremely punitive toward the Sunnis. He did not strike me as a man who wanted national reconciliation in Iraq. But many Iraqi and U.S. officials who have spoken to him since he became prime minister believe that he understands his new role. If so, he will have to tackle very quickly the two big political challenges Iraq faces, weakening the insurgency and disbanding sectarian militias. Neither can be done purely militarily.

Co-opting the majority of the Sunnis is the simplest way Maliki can cripple the insurgency. So far he has said some encouraging things about national unity. On the other hand, he has given Sunnis only 11 percent of cabinet posts, though they are 20 percent of the country. Tariq al-Hashimi, the new Sunni vice president, complains that when he details violence by death squads, Iraq's leaders remain highly unresponsive. "Even if you have complete evidence, they are not open-minded. It's really phenomenal," he says.

Maliki will have to stake out national positions on the proposed amendments to the Constitution, the sharing of oil revenue and other such matters. But even sooner he will have to address the core Sunni demand--an end to the de-Baathification process, which has thrown tens of thousands of Sunnis out of jobs and barred them from new ones. Iraq's deputy prime minister, Barham Saleh, a Kurd, told me that "the time has come for us to be courageous enough to admit that there were massive mistakes in de-Baathification." The American ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, argued similarly, saying "de-Baathification has to evolve into reconciliation with accountability." Khalilzad added that Prime Minister Maliki supported the notion that de-Baathification "has to focus on individuals who are charged with specific crimes, not whole classes and groups of people." If so, it would mark a major and positive shift in policy.

Maliki's second challenge is with his own. The Shia militias now run rampant throughout non-Kurdish Iraq. Khalilzad believes that they will have to be largely disbanded--"perhaps 5 percent of them can be integrated into the national Army and security services, but most have to be given civilian jobs." The greatest challenge here comes from the large and growing Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr. This renegade cleric is mounting a frontal challenge to the United States and to the authority of the new Iraqi government (even while he takes charge of some of its ministries). He is popular on the Shia Street, and his gangs run unchecked through the country and dominate large parts of Baghdad. He receives money and support from Iran, which has recognized that Sadr supports its agenda in Iraq--to make trouble for the Americans.

Maliki will have to handle Sadr politically as well as militarily, enlisting Ayatollah Sistani's help. If Maliki cannot handle him, Moqtada al-Sadr will become the most powerful man in Iraq. And Nuri al-Maliki will not be the first elected prime minister of a new Iraq, but the last prime minister of an experiment that failed. Iraq will continue down its slide into violence, ethnic cleansing and Balkanization. In places like Baghdad, with mixed populations, this will mean the city will be carved up into warring neighborhoods, with gangs providing a mafia-style system of law and order, and constant guerrilla attacks. It will be Lebanon in the 1980s, except that 130,000 American troops will be in the middle of it all.