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A remarkable reversal of fortune for Iraq's defense minister

BAGHDAD, Iraq—As U.S. airstrikes pummeled insurgent strongholds in western Iraq recently, Iraqi Defense Minister Saadoun al Duleimi sipped bitter lime tea and watched news of the operation on a flat-screen TV in his opulent office in Baghdad.

His cell phone chirped with calls from furious Sunni Arab leaders, but al Duleimi had nothing left to say to them. The powerful tribesmen and clerics had squandered chance after chance to evict foreign fighters from their perennially violent cities, he said. Once again, the time had come to flush insurgents from Anbar and Ninevah provinces by force, and al Duleimi no longer cared whether other Sunni Muslims called him a traitor for dispatching Iraqi troops to help the Americans who were storming through his ancestral lands.

"I belong to that area. That's why I'm between the hammer and the nail," al Duleimi said, referring to his roots in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar. "But I have no choice. Why are they angry? If they claim they control those areas, why didn't they stop the violence there?"

Al Duleimi, a British-educated sociologist, seemed a long way from the humble office in a leafy Baghdad suburb where he'd struggled to fund Iraqi public opinion polls after returning from exile in Saudi Arabia two years ago. In one of the most remarkable reversals of fortune in wartime Iraq, he was plucked from his polling center in May and installed as defense chief, the highest-ranking cabinet seat reserved for a Sunni Arab in a government run by Shiite Muslims and Kurds.

He wasn't the front-runner for the position, but his political record was clean and his last name denotes the powerful tribe he comes from in Anbar, where U.S. and Iraqi officials desperately need inroads.

A self-described liberal pacifist, al Duleimi now commands a billion-dollar defense budget and is under intense pressure to whip Iraq's fledgling military into shape ahead of an anticipated drawdown in U.S. forces next year. His every move is shadowed by a phalanx of heavily armed bodyguards as death threats come by phone and mail. And after four months in office, the embattled minister is realizing that insurgents aren't the only enemy he faces.

Many Sunni Arabs claim that al Duleimi doesn't represent them, and they revile him for the nonstop military actions in their volatile, rebellious territories. Some Shiite leaders sought his resignation earlier this month, blaming him for the lack of crowd control that contributed to the deaths of 1,000 worshipers in a stampede at a Shiite religious celebration. He's made new foes by firing several senior employees who were accused in a massive corruption scandal that appears to have siphoned more than $800 million from his ministry's coffers.

"Dr. Duleimi is trying to save face," said Saad Jawad Qandeel, a senior member of the dominant Shiite political bloc. "He's achieved a lot since taking over the Ministry of Defense, though he still has long days ahead of him."

Until he joined the government, al Duleimi was more accustomed to doling out criticism than receiving it. From a simple, gardenia-scented office at the Iraqi Center for Research and Strategic Studies, the independent think tank he founded, he became a reliable analyst for foreign journalists who were trying to make sense of Iraq's bloody path to democracy.

Using his poll results as backup, al Duleimi deemed the war a disaster that ushered in Islamic extremism, foreign occupation and the fragmentation of Iraqis along sectarian and ethnic lines. After one of his earliest surveys on Iraqi feelings toward the United States, he found "the people no longer think of Bush as a liberator. They consider him a liar."

In al Duleimi's assortment of published comments from the past two years, Sunni clerics were described as fundamentalists, the new crop of Shiite leaders was too close to Iran and "most of the peshmerga cannot even speak Arabic," he said of the Kurdish militias that are now the backbone of his military.

He was also gloomy about Iraq's elections last January, saying America "didn't come all this way across the continents to offer Iraqis democracy. They will not let the Iraqis choose a government unless it is already favored by them."

In interviews last year, al Duleimi described the conservative Shiite leader Ibrahim al Jaafari as "still dreaming about" turning Iraq into a theocracy. He warned that controversial politician Ahmad Chalabi "cannot rely on Iraqis. His power comes from America." Those two men are now his bosses. Al Jaafari, the prime minister, handed al Duleimi his job in May. And al Duleimi recently spent a leisurely afternoon with Chalabi, a deputy prime minister, at the one-time Pentagon favorite's weekend home.

Al Duleimi's alliance with the Shiite politicians he once criticized is critical to his political survival, as public support from fellow Sunnis melts away with each new bombing campaign in western territories. The Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni political faction, last week condemned the Iraqi government's cooperation with U.S. forces in "slaughtering its sons" in the Anbar province.

"I'm embarrassed and upset by Saadoun al Duleimi," said Saleh Mutlak, a secular Sunni Arab politician who's emerged as one of the most outspoken critics of the Iraqi government. "He's born of that area and comes from that area, and yet still they're attacking it. There should be a political solution. He's embarrassing us."

Al Duleimi swats away such criticism, saying that many Sunni Arabs haven't come to terms with their new reality as mere participants—not the dominant force—in Iraqi politics. And he says there's a "silent majority" of Sunnis who support the tough measures he imposes but are afraid to speak publicly in favor of the government.

For every critical politician's call that he receives, he said, he gets a call from a beleaguered resident of a Sunni town who's seeking his help in overcoming insurgents or hastening the departure of U.S. forces. He counsels patience, saying American troops will begin withdrawing only from the most peaceful cities. Giving their homes and hearts to insurgents will only prolong the bloodshed, he says.

For his part, al Duleimi is working on a pension program for members of Saddam Hussein's former military who lost their livelihoods when the U.S. occupation authority dissolved the armed forces at the beginning of the war. The former regime's jobless Sunni soldiers make easy recruits for foreign and homegrown insurgents, al Duleimi said. But he added that he wouldn't hesitate to "crush them" if they fail to meet him halfway.

"It's not easy to build a new military and fight at the same time," al Duleimi said. "But we do that in Iraq. Build and fight. That's our fate."


(Knight Ridder special correspondent Mohammed al Dulaimy contributed to this report.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.