Baghdad raid shows fears of Iraq security handover
BAGHDAD, Mar 29: Whatever really happened at a Baghdad Shi'ite Muslim compound on Sunday, and whatever the true U S involvement, the bloody incident highlights the key fear for many of giving control of security back to Iraqis: Trust.
Because U S soldiers were involved in the incident that killed anywhere from 16 to 37 people, the ruling Shi'ite Alliance demanded U S forces hand Iraqi security back to Iraqis.
But analysts say that cannot work until a government of national unity bringing together majority Shi'ites with Sunnis and Kurds is formed, something the devastated country is little closer to months after December parliamentary elections.
Sectarian violence is mounting by the day and threatening to turn into all-out civil war and many Iraqis already have little enough faith in the U S and government forces to protect them, fuelling support for religious militas.
''If the government is perceived to be biased, then the (security) forces will be perceived to be biased,'' said Martin Navias, a member of the War Studies Department at King's College in London. ''You need a government of national unity first.'' ''They are not going to hand it over to Baghdad as a result of these calls. It's not going to work like that.''
The United States handed over sovereignty in 2004 but 133,000 troops in the country give it the main say in security.
On Sunday, U S and Iraqi forces, or Iraqi and U S forces, depending on who is telling the story, killed between 16 and 37 Shi'ites at the Mustafa mosque compound on the outskirts of Sadr City, the power base of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Some Shi'ite leaders say U S troops massacred unarmed worshippers at dusk prayers; police say there was a clash between soldiers and Sadr's Mehdi Army.
The U S military says an Iraqi special forces operation , with U S advisers, engaged militants, killing 16 of them, detaining 18 and freeing an Iraqi hostage.
They reject the description of the compound as a mosque and say bodies were moved to stage scenes, displayed repeatedly on government-run television, of apparently civilian victims.
With the dangers of moving around in Iraq -- local reporters have been warned off the scene by militiamen -- and the lack of reliable sources, doubts remain.
But Sadr's group and officials in Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari's Dawa party have blamed the Americans. The security minister publicly stated that not 16 but 37 people died. ''I think this incident is a U S message addressed to everyone, in which they say they are still the number one player in town,'' said Hazim al-Naimi a political analyst from Baghdad's Mustansiriya University.
Joost Hiltermann, project director for the International Crisis Group think tank, said Sadr, who has close ties to Tehran, could stir up trouble at a time when the United States and Iran are preparing for talks on stabilising Iraq.
''The Shi'ites now believe the Americans, who brought them to power, are engaged in what they call the second betrayal,'' he said. ''First the Americans abandoned them in the first Gulf War (in 1991) and now they believe the Americans are turning their backs on them.'' The problem is that the United States needs whoever is ruling Iraq as much as they need the United States.
''Both sides need each other, but both sides want to keep their distance from each other,'' says Navias.
Washington has stepped up pressure on Iraq's politicians to form a unified government, months after parliamentary polls. The interim government is largely a Shi'ite-Kurd alliance.
Washington is planning talks with Shi'ite neighbour Iran, which has sway over Baghdad, to break the impasse.
Some analysts say the rising sectarian bloodshed is increasing pressure on Jaafari, unpopular with the Kurds and Sunnis, to stand aside in favour of a compromise candidate, but there is no clear frontrunner.
''They (the U.S.) would prefer that he is not there, but they are prepared to work with him,'' said one analyst, who asked not to be named.
The United States says it wants to hand security over to Iraqi forces as quickly as feasible, allowing it to address popular domestic pressure to bring troops home.
But elements of the Shi'ite-dominated administration have been accused of backing anti-Sunni militias, eroding people's faith in the authorities to protect them.
''Handing over security to formations accused of being sectarian and biased is not a good idea,'' says Naimi. ''The Americans will never tolerate such a thing.''