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Iraqis offer few promises of quick action to heal sectarian divide

BAGHDAD, Iraq—One day after President Bush told the American public that Iraqi leaders are committed to regaining control of their capital, Iraqi politicians conceded that they've made little progress on the issues that Bush said the government must resolve.

The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced that it had selected a commander and two deputies to oversee the Baghdad security plan, but it didn't release their names.

A law that would govern how Iraq's oil wealth will be distributed among the country's rival sects and ethnic groups has yet to be presented to parliament. A law that would ease government employment restrictions on former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party remains a low priority, behind a plan for compensating the victims of Saddam's regime. Amendments to the constitution that would give minority Sunni Muslims greater influence on legislation aren't expected to be drafted for six to seven months.

"It's going very slowly," said Haider al-Abadi, a Shiite Muslim legislator from al-Maliki's Dawa party. "The parliament feels that it has not been allowed to move freely to run its own country and its own security forces. It has not been allowed to do that."

Death squads, however, remained active. Thirty-seven bodies were found throughout Baghdad, 36 of them on the mostly Sunni west side of the city. In Hai al Amil, a neighborhood that the Mahdi Army militia of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr controlled, 20 bodies littered the streets.

Al-Maliki was silent Thursday. The few details of his security plan that became known were disseminated piecemeal through top advisers, legislators and spokesmen.

Al-Maliki might be saying little publicly about any promises he may have made to U.S. officials in an effort to avoid angering his political base. He came into office last year with a reputation as a hard-line Shiite, and he derives much of his political strength from al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army. Some here think that the line between the government and the Sadrists is indistinguishable at times.

The most concrete information about the security plan came from Gen. Ali Ghaidan, the commander of land forces for the Ministry of Defense, who said in a phone interview with McClatchy Newspapers that three Iraqi army brigades would be dispatched to Baghdad in the coming week. Two of them would be taken from Irbil in the northern Kurdish region and the third from Samarra, north of Baghdad, he said.

However, legislators said they doubted that al-Maliki would move soon against Shiite militias, something that U.S. officials have said the prime minister has promised to do.

Legislators said Iraqi forces would target Sunni insurgent strongholds first and that neighborhoods that the Mahdi Army controlled would be addressed later. Al-Sadr loyalists control the largest bloc in Iraq's parliament and are considered crucial to al-Maliki's hold on his office.

"We want the prime minister to be on the side of all Iraqis. He must support them all," said Baha al-Araji, a Sadrist legislator. "The Mahdi Army and the Sadrists represent a wide sect of the Iraqis and that is why Maliki should support them."

Mariam al-Rayes, an al-Maliki adviser, said the prime minister had told the Mahdi Army that it must disarm, and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite cleric, endorsed the government's right to crack down on all armed entities outside the Iraqi security forces, including the Mahdi Army.

But that endorsement may have little practical effect since the security forces are heavily infiltrated by Mahdi Army members.

Sunni legislators complained that they'd been told little about the security plan and worried about the sectarian nature of Iraq's police forces.

"We hear about the security plan but we know nothing about it," Sunni legislator Hussein al-Falluji said. "It's really strange that the prime minister doesn't inform the parliament. It's as if he doesn't trust us, while the Americans know everything. . . . We have sectarian inclinations in our security forces and we all know about the sectarian crisis that we live in."

By going after Sunnis first, al-Maliki later can justify targeting Shiite extremists next, said a U.S. State Department official who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

But few believe that al-Maliki ever will allow U.S. and Iraqi troops to arrest as many Shiite militants as Sunni insurgents.

With each raid, al-Maliki must ask himself: "What is the political cost? How will the Shiites respond?" the official said.

U.S. military commanders said they'd be careful not to become pawns in Iraq's sectarian violence, siding with the Shiite government against Sunni residents. U.S. troops are to be embedded in Iraqi army units as part of the security plan.

"You have to give our commanders credit," one top U.S. military adviser in Baghdad said. He asked that he not be named because he wasn't authorized to comment on the plan to reporters.

On Wednesday, Bush announced that the United States would send more than 17,000 troops to Baghdad to help curb violence there. The American troops will work alongside Iraqis to sweep neighborhoods of armed extremists.

In return for the larger troop contribution, Bush said, al-Maliki promised to resolve Iraq's most divisive issues.

Adding American troops seemed unlikely to ease differences, however.

A heated exchange in parliament followed comments Thursday by Mithal Alusi, a secular legislator, hailing the coming of more American troops.

"Without the Americans, Saddam wouldn't be gone. Without the Americans, we wouldn't have found Saddam in that pit. Without the Americans we wouldn't be sitting here," Alusi said.

He was interrupted by the parliament's speaker, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni.

"Without the Americans, our honor wouldn't have been violated in Abu Ghraib" prison, Mashhadani said.

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(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondents Laith Hammoudi, Zaineb Obeid and Shatha al Awsy contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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