WASHINGTON—A powerful Iraqi Shiite Muslim leader on Monday urged the Bush administration to step up military attacks against Sunni insurgents and al-Qaida terrorists in his country, saying the United States' failure to take tougher action against the two groups has brought Iraq to the brink of civil war.
"The strikes they are getting from the multinational forces are not hard enough to put an end to their acts, but leave them (to) stand up again to resume their criminal acts," said Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) after White House talks with President Bush. He spoke at the U.S. Institute for Peace, a U.S. government-funded foreign policy institute.
Using the terms Shiites use to describe al-Qaida and the Sunni insurgents, Hakim called for tougher U.S. military action. "Eliminating the danger of the civil war in Iraq could only be achieved through directing decisive strikes against the Taqfiri terrorists and Baathist terrorists in Iraq," he said.
Hakim's call for greater action against Sunni insurgents, which came two days before a bipartisan commission is expected to recommend that the U.S. begin reducing the number of U.S. combat troops in Iraq, underscores how at odds Iraq's Shiite leaders are with American policymakers.
For several months, U.S. officials have said that Shiite militias, not the Sunni insurgency, are the greatest threat to Iraqi security, and they've pressed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to disarm them, something Maliki has been reluctant to do.
Hakim declined to say whether he'd pressed for more U.S. military action during his meeting with Bush. The White House also declined to detail Hakim's discussions with the president.
Hakim, whose SCIRI party's militia, the Badr Organization, has been accused of infiltrating Iraqi security forces and committing atrocities against minority Sunnis, denied that his party had any role in death squads or extra-judicial killings.
But he warned that continued attacks by Sunni insurgents against Shiites could spark even greater violence. He said that "Shiite religious authorities" have urged Shiites to refrain from all-out retaliation, but warned that those authorities "might lose their ability to calm down the reaction to the continuous (Sunni) sectarian cleansing attacks."
Hakim also said he favored revamping Iraq's central government so more power rests with regional administrations dominated by the country's religious and ethnic groups, something Bush administration officials view skeptically. He also said he opposes an international conference to help resolve Iraq's problems, a proposal that some expect the bipartisan commission to make in its report on Wednesday.
White House officials have portrayed Hakim's visit as an effort by Bush to reach out to various factions in Iraq in an effort to bolster the Maliki government and find a solution to the violence there.
Officials said the Hakim meeting also is aimed at undercutting the political influence of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose supporters control the largest bloc of seats in the Iraqi parliament and whose Mahdi Army militia is blamed for most of the death squad activity in the capital.
But Hakim's support in Iraq is ebbing, and there's talk in Baghdad of a new coalition to replace Maliki that would include neither Maliki's Dawa party nor Hakim's SCIRI.
Meanwhile, Sadr's and Hakim's factions are battling for control of the Shiite holy city of Najaf and the southern Shiite heartland that borders Iran. Control of the oil-rich south is the key to Hakim's longtime dream of establishing a federalist Shiite state. Sadr's followers don't oppose federalism, but they say now isn't the time for it.
In Baghdad, Hakim's involvement in the government means that his Badr Organization militia must show the kind of restraint that isn't expected of the Mahdi Army militia of Sadr, who's shunned direct involvement with the political process even though his followers hold six Cabinet posts and 30 seats in parliament.
The Sadrist politicians have staged an open-ended walkout from their duties to protest last week's meeting in Jordan between Bush and Maliki.
How useful Hakim will be in supporting Maliki is uncertain. SCIRI and Dawa have long been at odds, and Maliki was chosen prime minister over a SCIRI candidate. But analysts and Iraqi legislators in Baghdad said that with his support eroding in favor of Sadr, Hakim probably has no interest in seeing Maliki's administration collapse because that could force new elections and further strengthen Sadr.
Instead, Hakim's representatives in the government are asking for a Cabinet reshuffle to appease critics without the risk of restarting the process from scratch.
Sheikh Jalaladin al-Sagheer, a prominent Hakim-allied cleric and a member of parliament, said he expects as many as 11 seats in Maliki's Cabinet to be reshuffled in coming weeks.
Sadiq al-Rikabi, a political adviser to Maliki, acknowledged "a weakness in the government's performance" and confirmed that unspecified Cabinet changes are afoot, but he said the prime minister's seat is safe.
Others, however, said that a collection of unlikely bedfellows, including Sadr loyalists, some Sunnis, the secular Shiite former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and Christian groups may press to take over, pledging to hasten the departure of U.S. troops through a petition they call the National Honor Deed.
"We will present our demands, which can be summarized in two points: a timetable for the Multinational Force's withdrawal, and to have our national sovereignty," said Falah Hassan Shanshal, the spokesman of Sadr's legislative bloc and a part of the emerging political alliance. "We do not accept a government under a U.S. mandate. ... We need a real government with real sovereignty."
He added, "The American strategy has failed in both Iraq and the Middle East. They wanted to corrupt Islamic values, but they failed. They came and said they wanted to cultivate democracy, but we got nothing from their democracy but killing and bloodbaths."
(Allam reported from Baghdad, Landay and Douglas from Washington.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.