Iraq's PM under pressure as US frustration mounts
BAGHDAD, Oct 23: Disguised as a merchant and accompanied by his faithful vizier, Abbasid Caliph Haroun al-Rasheed would slip out of his palace at night and mingle with the common folk in the streets and markets of Baghdad.
The ruse, so goes the tale in the ''1,001 Nights,'' allowed the man who reigned over a vast empire in the late 8th century to be in touch with his subjects' woes and impart justice.
In today's war-torn Baghdad, Iraqi officials hardly ever venture out of the US-protected Green Zone, the sprawling government compound by the Tigris removed from the chaos and bloodshed gripping most of the country.
Five months after taking office in the citadel, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki finds his leadership increasingly paralysed by wrangling within his coalition and Shi'ite allies, as frustration among US officials grows over his failure to move against militias and tackle a host of other issues.
In a recent interview, Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi said Iraq's most dangerous problem was decision-making.
''Disarming militias is a political decision, not a military one. But who is going to take it? Maliki alone cannot take it even though he is the prime minister,'' a senior Shi'ite official close to Maliki said on condition of anonymity.
''The challenges are big but the issue is not about who is the prime minister or about his personality,'' the official said.
Maliki was thrust to the forefront of Iraqi politics with the image of a tough Shi'ite Islamist who could weld warring factions together into a national unity government.
His nomination by the Shi'ite Alliance bloc ended months of deadlock over his dithering predecessor Ibrahim al-Jaafari. His brisk style earned him praise from US officials anxious for a decisive leader capable of stemming a drift toward civil war.
Now, election-year pressure is piling on President George W Bush to revise his Iraq policy as sectarian violence worsens and the US death toll climbs.
Media reports that Bush officials are drafting a timetable for Baghdad to address violence and assume a larger role in security suggest Washington is prepared to push Maliki harder but the premier's aides say lack of government cohesion and growing Shi'ite factionalism are holding Maliki hostage.
They say he has found every decision challenged, whether by minority Sunni Arabs or Kurds or Shi'ite rivals.
''Maliki understands that him staying as prime minister depends on pleasing other political groups and on being diplomatic with all powers, so how can he accomplish anything?'' said Hazem al-Naimi, a political science professor.
SHI'ITE RIVALRY Rival Shi'ite groups within his coalition include the powerful Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the faction of Moqtada al-Sadr, a volatile cleric who heads a militia blamed for many sectarian killings. US commanders have been pressing Maliki to crack down on Sadr's Mehdi Army, but Maliki's political fortunes depend on the support he gets from Moqtada's group in parliament.
Last week, US officials arrested a senior Sadr aide in Baghdad but reluctantly released him next day after following a request from Maliki that he be freed.
A widening power struggle in the Shi'ite heartland between Sadr and the Badr Brigades, linked to SCIRI, sparked clashes last week in Amara and other towns in the oil-rich south. A Shi'ite verses Shi'ite war would add more headaches to US-led forces, battling Sunni rebels in central and western Iraq.
''There is a lot of political manoeuvring going on and these clashes are part of that,'' Major Charlie Burbridge, a spokesman for the British forces in Basra said of the fighting in Amara.
Bush administration officials publicly endorse Maliki but have hinted that their patience is not open-ended. Bush has talked of changing tactics if not strategy.
Signs of straining relations between Washington and Baghdad emerged last week when Maliki used a telephone call with Bush to seek assurances that the United States would not set a deadline for him to improve security and address sectarianism.
Some Shi'ite politicians complain that US pressure to form a power-sharing system in post-war Iraq among its three main groups has blocked them from exercising decisive majority rule.
''Maliki did not choose his own government. Some ministers were forced on him. If he wants to replace an inefficient minister with another more professional one he can't do it,'' a SCIRI official told Reuters.
The political paralysis is hindering not only Maliki's pledges to disarm militias and overhaul the Interior Ministry, but also plans to stamp out graft and improve public services.
''We can't even decide on building an oil refinery in Samawa,'' Mahdi said. ''We have the money and it's a safe place.
Why can't we do it? Because nobody can make a decision.''