BAGHDAD—The U.S. plan to improve security in Baghdad could be the Bush administration's and the Iraqi government's last chance to halt a civil war that many Iraqis and U.S. officials believe is intensifying fast.
The security plan, which calls for sweeping neighborhoods and restoring services, is intended to bring the capital under Iraqi military and police control and begin to pacify it. If that happens, U.S. troops could begin to withdraw. If it doesn't, the country's sectarian conflict could spiral out of control and escalate into a regional war between Iraq's Shiite and Sunni Muslim neighbors.
"The government has to make a clear decision about dismantling militias," said Saad al Janabi, a member of the secular Iraqi slate. "Reconciliation will not happen unless the Iraqi army is in charge" of the capital.
The offensive hasn't produced any major improvements in the capital since it began on June 14, and many Iraqis fear the plan is doomed because, they charge, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki is willing to attack Sunni insurgents but not to tackle the Shiite militias that support his Dawa political party.
Even if he were, they argue, Iraq's police and security forces are too weak and too thoroughly infiltrated by Shiite militants to challenge the Iranian-backed Shiite militias, including the Badr Corps and the Mahdi Army.
Maliki, once a harsh critic of Sunnis, adopted more centrist language after he became prime minister in April, a development the Bush administration hailed as a milestone for Iraqi democracy. But his Dawa Party won the prime minister's slot only with the backing of firebrand cleric Moqtada al Sadr.
Although Maliki has said he represents all Iraqis, he blasted U.S. soldiers for raiding a suspected Shiite militia leader's home earlier this week. It was the most vitriolic language he's used to describe the U.S. effort to stop the surge of sectarian violence in the capital.
"Why did he feel so angry about the attack on Sadr City, but said nothing about the many other attacks against Sunni cities?" asked Sheik Khalif al Elaiyan, a Sunni member of parliament. "Sadrists have committed many crimes against the Sunni people."
"He must change. This is not his private office. He should represent all Iraqis," said Mithal Alusi, a secular Shiite member of parliament. The Baghdad security plan "is the last chance for Maliki."
The U.S. raid targeted the Mahdi Army, which many say is the crux of Baghdad's security problems. Comprised of thousands of Shiite men and led by al Sadr, the group has seized control of parts of the capital, pushing Sunni residents out of their homes and killing Sunnis.
In an interview with McClatchy newspapers, a Mahdi Army leader who wanted to be identified only as "Rowad" boasted of killing Sunnis, whom he called infidels.
He said that Sunnis who're suspected of killing Shiites in the post-Saddam Hussein period are captured and brought before an Islamic court. If convicted, they receive the death penalty.
"There is nothing sectarian about it," Rowad said, offering to show a McClatchy reporter photos of Sunnis he's killed that he stores on his cell phone.
U.S. officials have said that the Mahdi Army and al Sadr are trying to model themselves after Lebanon's Hezbollah and its leader Hassan Nasrallah, and become a state within the state. Besides having its own militia, Hezbollah holds 32 seats in the Lebanese parliament, more than any other party, and walks a fine line between embracing and rejecting the political system.
Two U.S. military officials, who requested anonymity because of the security implications, said they're seeing signs that the Sadrists are adopting the same tactics as Hezbollah. There's been a surge of rocket and mortar attacks from the Mahdi Army's stronghold in Baghdad's Sadr City toward the Green Zone, the seat of the Iraqi government, the officials said.
U.S. officials have been hesitant to attack the Mahdi Army publicly, out of fear that doing so would spark more violence, and they've said that the Baghdad offensive will go after all criminal elements, regardless of sect.
The beleaguered residents of the Iraqi capital, meanwhile, are still waiting for a sign that things are getting better amid growing evidence that they're getting worse. Baghdad morgue officials said they received 1,815 bodies in July, the most since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in April 2003. Nearly all were killed violently, morgue officials said.
(McClatchy special correspondents Huda Ahmed, Laith Hammoudi and Zaineb Obeid contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.