WASHINGTON—It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to implement most of the key ideas for quelling the Iraqi civil war that are outlined in a classified Nov. 8 memo to President Bush from National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, experts said Wednesday.
Trying to push anti-U.S. Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr out of the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, as the memo suggests, would be throwing gasoline on a fire, they said.
Sadr's party is the largest in parliament, with 32 seats, and Maliki became prime minister only with his support. Sadr's Mahdi Army militia controls large parts of Baghdad and southern Iraq, and many Iraqi Shiites hail him as their only protection from attacks by rival Sunni Muslims, which American and Iraqi forces have failed to stop.
"Sadr is aware of the considerable extent to which his forces ... constitute a significant part of the power in the streets, and there is no reason why he would simply want to surrender that leverage," said Paul Pillar, the former top U.S. intelligence analyst on the Middle East.
In what appeared to be a warning from Sadr to Maliki, Sadr followers suspended their participation in the government and parliament to protest Maliki's plan to meet Bush on Wednesday in Jordan. Within an hour of the statement, Jordanian officials announced that the meeting had been postponed.
Hadley's memo was leaked to The New York Times on the eve of the Bush-Maliki talks. He wrote the five-page classified document after meeting with Maliki on Oct. 30 in Baghdad.
Since then, the violence in Iraq has surged to its worst level since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. It's been especially fierce in the capital since bombings last Thursday killed more than 200 people in Sadr City, a Shiite slum in Baghdad that the Mahdi Army controls.
In the memo, Hadley expressed doubts about Maliki's ability or willingness to go beyond the Shiite sectarian agenda and forge a unity government.
Hadley recommended steps that Maliki could take to curb the violence and measures that the United States could implement to strengthen him, including sending more forces into Baghdad.
Hadley's central suggestion was to bring Maliki's political reliance on Sadr "to closure" and pursue Mahdi Army members who "do not eschew violence."
Trying to force Sadr out of the government—in which his followers control some of the key ministries—and crack down on his militia almost certainly would lead to the government's collapse.
It also would ignite a wave of violence by his militia and supporters in Baghdad and the Shiite-dominated south, much of it probably aimed at the U.S.-led multinational force.
"Sadr is not going to rein in the Mahdi Army," said Vali Nasr of the Naval Postgraduate School, in Monterey, Calif., and the author of a new book on modern political Shiism.
Hadley suggested that Maliki overhaul his Cabinet by replacing key members of Shiite and Sunni religious parties with "nonsectarian, capable technocrats."
But the Iraqi Constitution requires that new ministers be approved by two-thirds of parliament, a vote that Sadr could block. A Cabinet shakeup also would unravel the power-sharing deal on controlling the ministries that took the religious parties months to negotiate.
"The ministries are run like fiefdoms," Nasr said. "Most ministers don't even come to Cabinet meetings."
Experts also were skeptical of a Hadley proposal that the United States provide "monetary support" for forming a new coalition of moderate Shiite, Sunni and ethnic Kurdish parliamentarians to keep Maliki in power if he's unable to cut loose from Sadr.
Several experts wondered what moderates Hadley was referring to.
Moreover, such an alliance would require Maliki to forge stronger bonds with Sadr's chief rival, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim. He's the head of another Shiite party that belongs to the ruling coalition and whose militia maintains even closer ties to the Islamic regime of neighboring Iran than the Mahdi Army does.
Finding Sunnis to join such a grouping would be impossible, because Hakim has been a leading proponent of purging members of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from the bureaucracy and the military, Nasr said.
Hakim met with Jordan's King Abdullah hours before Bush arrived in Amman, and was scheduled to travel to Washington, where he was expected to visit the White House.
Maliki already has tried unsuccessfully to implement some of Hadley's ideas, several experts noted. These include attempts to purge the police and Interior Ministry of sectarian death squads and to disarm militias.
Phebe Marr, a leading U.S. expert on Iraq, said that some of the more modest ideas that Hadley proposed in the memo—such as appointing technocrats to the government and cleaning up the Interior Ministry—were achievable.
"I think these small steps can be done. I think Maliki is doing them. But we have very different perceptions of time and timetable," Marr said, referring to growing political pressure in the United States to withdraw troops.
As for a "spectacular breakthrough" from the Iraqi government in the near future, "forget it," she said.
(Youssef reported from Amman, Jordan. Warren P. Strobel in Washington contributed to this report.)
In public, top Bush administration officials have taken a very different view of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki than the one expressed in a classified National Security Council memo:
Sept. 30. Army Gen. George W. Casey in Baghdad: Maliki is "a determined, courageous leader taking on some very difficult issues. ... He has an awful lot of challenges facing him, and I do believe he is very much up to the task."
Oct. 5. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Baghdad: "I do think he has the strength. I think he's a very good and strong prime minister."
Oct. 24. Marine Gen. Pete Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: "I do know that Prime Minister Maliki is working very hard right now in his five-month-old government—he's working very hard to try to find those political agreements that would reconcile the needs of Sunni, Shia and Kurds so he can get on about being the unifying leader that he's trying to be."
Oct. 25. President Bush: "I do believe Prime Minister Maliki is the right man to achieve the goal in Iraq."
Nov. 8. Memo prepared by National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley and his aides after a visit to Baghdad: "Do we and Prime Minister Maliki share the same vision for Iraq? If so, is he able to curb those who seek Shia hegemony or the reassertion of Sunni power?
"... Despite Maliki's reassuring words, repeated reports from our commanders on the ground contributed to our concerns about Maliki's government. Reports of nondelivery of services to Sunni areas, intervention by the prime minister's office to stop military action against Shia targets and to encourage them against Sunni ones, removal of Iraq's most effective commanders on a sectarian basis and efforts to ensure Shia majorities in all ministries—when combined with the escalation of Jaish al-Mahdi's (JAM) (the Mahdi Army militia of militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr) killings—all suggest a campaign to consolidate Shia power in Baghdad.
"... His intentions seem good when he talks with Americans, and sensitive reporting suggests he is trying to stand up to the Shia hierarchy and force positive change. But the reality on the streets of Baghdad suggests Maliki is either ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions, or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into action."
Nov. 28. Rice in Riga, Latvia: "I think that if you meet these leaders of the central government, you recognize the challenges that they have, you will be quite impressed with what they have achieved and continue to achieve."
_Compiled by researcher Tish Wells