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Experts: Iraq can't be stabilized unless militias are dismantled
San Francisco Chronicle


October 25, 2006

It is impossible to stabilize Iraq - and pave the way for a U.S. withdrawal - without dismantling the nation's Shiite militias, which have infiltrated the security forces and are using their official status to operate death squads, experts say.

Far less clear is who is capable of doing that job in a country that has become a minefield of sectarian allegiances and where the militias operate beyond government control.




"In the current environment, where so much blood is on the ground, I see no way not only of easily stopping the bloodletting, the death squads and other things, but also taking down the militias," said Wayne White, a former State Department analyst on Iraq.

The conundrum was illustrated last Wednesday when U.S. forces released, at the Iraqi government's request, a senior aide to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, Iraq's most powerful Shiite militia leader. Iraqi and U.S. troops had captured the aide, Mazin al-Saedi, the day before on suspicion of having directed kidnappings, killings and torture of Iraqis and of attacking American troops.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, has pledged to eliminate the militias responsible for the violence that has claimed hundreds if not thousands of Iraqi lives over the past nine months. He assured President Bush that he will make "tough decisions" to combat the militias, said Bush's press secretary, Tony Snow.

Last Tuesday, Iraqi officials removed two police generals who had commanded the country's special police commandos and its public-order brigade, both of which reportedly have been infiltrated by Shiite militias. Earlier this month, the government suspended an entire police brigade on suspicion that some members had participated in death-squad killings.

However, al-Maliki said earlier that his government would not force militias to disarm until later this year or early next year. "There are procedures, steps that need to be taken, which take time," al-Maliki told USA Today in an interview published Monday.

Hindering al-Maliki's efforts is the fact that he relies on political support from Shiite militias, such as al-Sadr's Mahdi Army - an extensive social, religious, political and paramilitary network, which is at the forefront of violence against Sunnis. Support from al-Sadr, who controls five ministries and the largest voting bloc in parliament, was instrumental in making al-Maliki prime minister.

Al-Maliki "can't get rid of (the Mahdi Army) without destroying his power base and therefore himself," said Joost Hiltermann, a Jordan-based expert on Iraq for the International Crisis Group. "It's an issue of survival."

On Wednesday, al-Maliki, a member of the less-powerful Shiite Dawa party, met with al-Sadr to enlist his support in tackling the sectarian carnage. After the meeting, al-Sadr said nothing about disarming his militia.

While the United States acknowledges the urgency of quelling sectarian bloodshed, it has been staying largely on the sidelines.

U.S. commanders have insisted that dealing with the militias is the job of the nascent Iraqi forces and not U.S. troops. One reason is that "taking on the militias head-on poses more problems than it solves, because ... they are going to lose more soldiers if they do," said Lydia Khalil, a Georgetown University analyst who had worked as a policy adviser for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad.

Fighting militias militarily is not "politically prudent" for the United States, because it would disrupt any potential political negotiations U.S. forces could carry out with militia leaders, Khalil said.

No one knows how many armed militia members - tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands - are in Iraq. The Associated Press estimates that 23 sectarian militias - mostly Shiite - are operating in Baghdad alone. Hiltermann said the 140,000 U.S. forces stationed in Iraq are not enough to take them on while simultaneously fighting the Sunni-led insurgency.

Shiites feel that they need militias to protect them against Sunni insurgents who have targeted their mosques, markets and other public areas, Khalil said.

Instead, the United States continues training and arming Iraqi security forces despite allegations that these forces - particularly the police - have become infiltrated by militias.

Washington, which has no diplomatic relations with Iran, is trying to pressure Tehran into giving up its nuclear program. To ask Iran for help in restraining Iraq's Shiite militias, the United States would have to "be willing to trade off some very large cards at the bargaining table," said White. "I don't think anyone is prepared to do that."

Previous appeals to rein in the militias have fallen on deaf ears.


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