Iraq's Shaky Government Feels Rumblings From Washington To Meet Benchmarks Or Lose Support

Friday, April 27th 2007, 3:15 pm
By: News On 6

BAGHDAD (AP) _ With Congress demanding the troops come home, pressure is mounting on Iraq's prime minister to deliver on reforms or lose U.S. support _ a key pillar of his shaky government.

In the coming weeks, parliament is expected to take up key legislation on such issues as regulating Iraq's oil industry, relaxing the ban on government jobs for members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party and amending the constitution to satisfy demands by disaffected Sunni Arabs.

The U.S. has identified those steps as key ``benchmarks'' for Iraq to guarantee continued American support.

All those draft bills, however, face substantial opposition in the Shiite Muslim-led parliament, where al-Maliki's nominal supporters hold a majority but cannot agree on steps to expand common ground with Sunnis and Kurds.

On a recent visit to Iraq, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that Iraqi legislators should not take their summer recess, set for July, until they approve the measures.

Without U.S. backing, al-Maliki's chances of political survival are doubtful and could send Iraq into another political tailspin.

``There is no doubt that we are going through a critical and dangerous period,'' Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh said. ``We need to pay great attention to the political process to achieve national unity to face these terrorist challenges.''

But Shiite politicians are resisting any move to bring back large numbers of Baath members into the civil service or the security forces. The head of the government committee that screens former Baath members, Ali al-Lami, has said the draft bill is unconstitutional.

Shiite and Kurdish leaders are also not keen on major amendments to the constitution, which was ratified in an October 2005 referendum but opposed by many Sunni Arabs who felt it favored the other communities.

The oil bill won Cabinet endorsement in February after the Kurds accepted a compromise giving them a major say in awarding contracts to foreign oil companies. But many lawmakers believe the measure grants foreign companies too great a role in Iraq's oil fields, most of them in the Shiite-dominated south and the mostly Kurdish north.

Although the bill would guarantee Sunni Arabs a major share of oil revenue, key Sunni leaders believe it gives away too much authority to regional authorities, especially the Kurds.

U.S. authorities have said little about what they would do if the Iraqis fail to approve the measures by the summer. However, it is clear American patience with al-Maliki's government is running out.

Close associates to the prime minister told The Associated Press last month that al-Maliki fears the Bush administration will withdraw its support if the oil bill and other key legislation is not in place soon. The associates spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue is sensitive.

The political showdown is taking shape as the Iraq war enters a decisive stage. American casualties are rising, and violence is raging across the country.

The U.S. troop increase announced by President Bush in January brought a momentary drop in civilian slaughter in Baghdad. But even the U.S. commander, Gen. David Petraeus, acknowledges the arrival of thousands more American soldiers has not curbed violence nationwide.

Success, Petraeus said Thursday in Washington, will require ``an enormous commitment'' by the United States _ perhaps requiring even more troops than the 30,000 reinforcements that Bush already approved.

U.S. death tolls have surpassed 80 every month since December, when 112 U.S. personnel were killed. So far this month, the toll stands at nearly 90, making five consecutive months American deaths have topped 80 _ they never before reached that high for more than two straight months.

The challenge of the Iraq war is its complexity _ several conflicts raging in parallel, all within the umbrella of a giant struggle for power among the country's religious and ethnic groups now that Saddam is gone.

Sunni and Shiite extremists battle not only coalition forces but fight among themselves, often turning their fury on civilians from the rival communities.

To the north, Kurds and Arabs compete for control of the oil-rich area around Kirkuk. In the south, armed Shiite groups _ some believed aided by Iran _ square off for domination in Basra, center of the vast southern oil fields.

In such a free-for-all, politics and violence are intertwined.

The goal of the troop buildup is to reduce violence in Baghdad so Iraqi leaders can reach political compromises. But without compromise, combatants have no incentive to lay down their arms.

Petraeus has described the Iraq war as ``the most complex and challenging I have ever seen.'' His predecessor, Gen. George Casey, referred to the ``Pillsbury Doughboy effect'' _ press the extremists in one area and they step up attacks somewhere else.

U.S. forces have achieved some measure of success against al-Qaida in Anbar province, which stretches from near Baghdad to the Syrian and Jordanian borders. Now the extremists have shifted eastward to Diyala province, which was seemed relatively secure 18 months ago.

American commanders warn it will take months, not weeks, to determine if their new strategy can succeed.

But among Iraq's long-suffering people, trust is wearing thin.

Security forces set up checkpoints in Baghdad to stop suicide bombers, and Iraqis complain of traffic jams. Plans are drawn up for protective walls around neighborhoods to keep out death squads, and residents cry they are being herded into prisons.

``The security plan has added many problems for Iraqis _ traffic jams in the streets, random gunfire day and night, abuse by Iraqi security forces'' said Kadhim Habeeb, a Shiite lawyer. ``This is not a security plan. It is security chaos.''

Meanwhile, residents say that Shiite militias, whose pullback early in the latest U.S. buildup was largely responsible for a drop in sectarian murders, are slowly reappearing in Baghdad.

``They are still there,'' said Abdul-Qader Jamal, a Sunni Arab. ``They're still roaming the streets with their weapons, launching attacks against security forces and threatening Sunnis.''