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Iraq prime minister rides high on successes

Sunday, May 25, 2008

BAGHDAD -- After two years in office, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has managed only in the past two months to stamp a semblance of authority in this unwieldy nation with bold crackdowns on Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents in Baghdad, Basra and the north.

The progress has brought the Shiite prime minister's political rehabilitation, quieting critics at home who have long seen him as ineffective, indifferent to corruption or biased toward Shiite interests.

It also has won him praise from American officials and the military, only months after some in the United States were calling for him to be replaced for failing to achieve political benchmarks. His current political buoyancy also comes in no small part from an overall drop of violence -- the U.S. military said that last week it recorded the lowest number of attacks since April 2004.

But al-Maliki is not out of the woods yet. Security gains made in the crackdowns he has personally overseen remain fragile and could quickly unravel, leaving him with little to show for his efforts and sparking new instability.

Followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have stepped up their rhetoric against al-Maliki in recent days, accusing him of trying to eliminate them -- straining a truce with the Sadrists' Mahdi Army militia that has been key to success in Sadr City and Basra.

The goodwill he has created has also yet to translate into concrete gains in reconciliation between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. A deal still has not been sealed on returning Sunni Arab rivals to his government or on passing a crucial law on sharing oil wealth, blocked in part by his Kurdish allies.

Reconciliation will be key as al-Maliki faces the potentially divisive political events that loom ahead -- like provincial elections expected in November and negotiations over a long-term presence of U.S. forces.

Al-Maliki also has to face the daunting tasks of reducing popular discontent over services, employment and crime. Better-than-expected oil income -- $60-plus billion this year -- should enable him to cushion some of the hardship Iraqis face.

Still, al-Maliki acknowledged last week during a visit to the southern city of Najaf that power cuts -- the scourge of Iraqis during the unforgiving heat of the summer months -- may stay the same because of a decline in the volume of water available to hydraulic power stations.

"The Iraqis and the Americans seem to be going in vicious circles," said Thamer Abdul-Rasoul, a 42-year-old government employee and father of three from Baghdad. "They make progress in one area and do nothing about others. Security now is better than 2005 and 2006, but electricity still comes four or five hours a day in total."

Al-Maliki became Iraq's longest-serving prime minister since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein, marking his two-year anniversary on Tuesday. For much of that time, his opponents have accused him of doing little as Shiite factions and their militias gained power in many areas.

But his move against Shiite militias in Basra -- though troubled when it began in late March -- and the Iraqi security forces' deployment last week in Sadr City have some critics hopeful.

"Perhaps the message was finally received that what has gone on for the past two years cannot continue and the prime minister must take a decisive position," Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi told Associated Press Television News this week.

Still, nothing has yet come out of an agreement reached nearly a month ago with al-Hashemi for the return of Sunni ministers who quit the Cabinet in August.

"The ball now is in the government's court," al-Hashemi said. He said al-Maliki had rejected two lists of nominees to fill the vacant Cabinet posts presented by the Iraqi Accordance Front, parliament's largest Sunni Arab bloc.

The Basra assault sparked clashes with the Mahdi Army across southern Iraq and in Sadr City. But after a truce in mid-April, Basra is calmer and government forces have greater control. Violence in Sadr City continued for weeks until another truce was reached there in May. That paved a way for a large military deployment that has so far gone off without a shot in the district, where Mahdi Army fighters once operated unquestioned.

An unusual calm has descended on Baghdad since fighting ended in Sadr City.

But Mahdi Army militiamen have largely ignored al-Maliki's order to hand over medium and heavy weapons in Basra and Sadr City, suggesting they are keeping them to fight another day. The negotiated truces do not address the larger question of the future of the Mahdi Army, which earned notoriety for killing thousands of Sunni Arabs at the height of sectarian violence in 2006 and 2007.

"We're hopeful that it will hold," Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, said Thursday about the Sadr City truce.

"But we recognize that, like anything, it is fragile and so there are a number of things that could happen, and we have to prepare ourselves for that eventuality."

Upcoming elections hold dangers: Al-Maliki has spoken of banning parties with militias from running, a move that would anger the Sadrists.

A new outbreak of violence with the Mahdi Army could throw everything back into turmoil and strain what the U.S. military says is an improved performance by Iraqi forces. The militia fought with tenacity in Sadr City and Basra, while the Iraqi army and police suffered the embarrassment of about 1,000 cases of desertions in Basra, casting serious doubt on their readiness.

Al-Qaida and Sunni insurgents are also not out of the picture. The offensive against them in Mosul was publicized by the government as early as January, months ahead of its launch, giving the terror network's fighters time to flee and regroup elsewhere.

Hamza Hendawi has covered Iraq for The Associated Press on numerous assignments since January 2003.

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