BAGHDAD, Iraq—The Baghdad security plan, which some cast as the last chance to avert a civil war, will be thwarted by Iraq's prime minister because he is unwilling to tackle the country's biggest security threat, many residents and politicians fear.
The plan calls for U.S. forces to sweep neighborhoods and help restore services, eventually leaving the capital under Iraqi military and police control. 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 offensive hasn't produced any major improvements in the capital since it began on June 14, and many Iraqis fear the plan is doomed by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's willingness to attack Sunni insurgents but not the Shiite militias that support his Dawa political party.
"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."
Maliki blasted U.S. soldiers for raiding a suspected Shiite militia leader's home early last week in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City. It was the most vitriolic language Maliki has used to describe U.S. military tactics to stop the surge of sectarian violence in the capital.
The U.S. raid targeted the Mahdi army, which many say is the crux of Baghdad's security problems. Composed of thousands of Shiite men and led by firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the group has seized control of parts of the capital, killing numbers of Sunnis and evicting others from their homes.
Sadr City residents said that three civilians were killed during the raid; U.S. officials said one was injured and three suspects were detained.
"The American operation used excessive force when they used airplanes which were too much to arrest suspected insurgents," Maliki said in the interview. "I immediately contacted the U.S. forces to stop the attacks as they didn't have my permission to carry out this operation."
His comments immediately drew broad ire.
Maliki, once a harsh critic of Sunnis, adopted a more centrist stance 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 al-Sadr's backing.
"Why did he feel so angry about the attack on Sadr City, but say 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."
Others said he was putting his political survival ahead of the nation's interests, and his tactic could backfire.
"He must change. This is not his private office. He should represent all Iraqis," said Mithal al-Alusi, a secular Shiite member of parliament. The Baghdad security plan "is the last chance for Maliki."
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 are 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 that he stores on his cell phone of Sunnis he has killed.
U.S. officials have said that the Mahdi army and al-Sadr are trying to model themselves after Hezbollah and its leader Hassan Nasrallah, and become a state within a state. Besides having its own militia, Sadr 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. In the past month, 62 percent of rocket and mortar attacks launched toward the Green Zone, the seat of the Iraqi government, came from Sadr City, one of the military officers 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.
Supporters of the militias say they are the only forces capable of defending Shiites, noting that up until those forces took control of neighborhoods, Sunnis were slaughtering Shiites.
"They want something big from us—to dismantle our militias," said Sayed Nael al-Mousawi during his Friday sermon at the Shiite Baratha Mosque. "The government cannot protect itself. So how can it protect us?"
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondents Huda Ahmed, Laith Hammoudi and Zaineb Obeid contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.