U.S. support for Maliki dismays Iraqi opposition

BAGHDAD — Iraqi politicians expressed dismay Tuesday that the top two American officials based here offered little criticism of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki during their two days of testimony before Congress, even though Maliki's government has made little progress toward national reconciliation.

Some called the testimony by U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Army Gen. David Petraeus another U.S. blunder and wondered why the two didn't offer the same strong criticism of Maliki's government in Washington that they'd made recently in Iraq.

"They wrote something that sticks to the U.S. administration policy," independent Kurdish legislator Mahmoud Othman said. "The surge has worked, but it is all temporary . . . without some sort of reconciliation. We don't see any reconciliation."

Bassem Sharif al Hajeemi, a member of parliament from Fadhila, a Shiite Muslim party that left the government in March, said he was disappointed that Crocker and Petraeus continued to support the Maliki government.

"There are many things that the U.S. has done wrong in Iraq, and one or two years later they say, 'That was a mistake,' " Hajeemi said. "This is another wrong."

In the weeks just ahead of their testimony, Petraeus and Crocker were openly critical of Maliki, with Crocker saying in late August that the Maliki government's failure to bring about reconciliation was "extremely disappointing."

"The progress on national-level issues has been extremely disappointing and frustrating to all concerned: to us, to Iraqis, to the Iraqi leadership itself," Crocker said then.

He'd been careful to note that developments in Anbar province, where Sunni Muslim tribal leaders had turned on insurgents from the group al Qaida in Iraq, shouldn't be mistaken for reconciliation. "I mean to the contrary," Crocker said in August. "What has happened in Anbar is important. It's clearly positive. It is probably an essential prerequisite for reconciliation, but it isn't reconciliation."

Those two sentiments were barely expressed in the two days of testimony, however. While Crocker expressed frustration at the pace of reconciliation — "My confidence is under control," he said at one point — he also said he saw progress. The developments in Anbar were one sign of that, he said. The government's agreement to incorporate 1,700 Sunnis into the police force in Baghdad's Sunni Arab suburb of Abu Ghraib was another.

Petraeus also cited the government's decision to allow the hiring of the Sunnis as a good sign. "It may not be the reconciliation law," he said, but "Candidly, that is what gives me, again, some hope."

Maliki's national security adviser, Mowaffak al Rubaie, said the government welcomed the two officials' testimony and promised that Iraqi forces soon would be independent enough to allow U.S. troops to go home.

"We expect in the near future that our need will be diminished for the multinational forces to conduct direct combat operations," Rubaie said. "We highly appreciate the sacrifices given by our friends in the coalition, which have paved the way to boost victory and security in Iraq."

Other politicians charged that Petraeus and Crocker had tailored their testimony to impress an American audience and persuade Congress to give them more time, even as Iraqis had become convinced that Maliki's government would be unable to resolve Iraq's political rivalries.

"Their description really is deficient," said Alaa Makki, a leading member of the Iraqi Accordance Front, a Sunni group that withdrew its ministers from Maliki's Cabinet over the summer. "It's really as if they ignored the failure of the Maliki government to achieve reconciliation and to achieve the goals we agreed to when we agreed on a national unity government."

Nearly half of Maliki's Cabinet has resigned or suspended its participation in the government in recent months. Political followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, collectively called Sadrists, withdrew in April. Secular ministers from the Iraqiya list withdrew at the beginning of August, shortly after the Iraqi Accordance Front pulled its six ministers.

"Generally speaking, for the Iraqi people there is failure, there is political failure. Half of the government is not present," Makki said. "This was completely bypassed by Mr. Crocker's report. . . . There is no chance for good success."

Late Monday, more than 100 tribal and local leaders also voiced their distress at Maliki's government, addressing a letter to Petraeus that condemned it. The letter claimed to have the support of tribal leaders in Diyala, Anbar, Nineveh and Salah ad Din provinces as well as southern Iraqi provinces dominated by Shiites.

"We hold Maliki responsible for the crisis existing in Iraq," the letter said. "Not only has he not taken action against the militias, but has paved the way for sectarian violence and divisions in the Interior Ministry, the National Guard and the police."

The letter called for support for Ayad Allawi, a secular politician who served as the U.S.-appointed prime minister in the first government after the U.S. dissolved its Coalition Provisional Authority.

Average Iraqis, who were able to follow the hearings in full in Arabic on satellite television channels, echoed the complaints.

The testimony, said Salah Hadhood, a 40-year-old Shiite Arab in Baghdad, "was not about the Iraqi people, it's about Americans, exactly like the invasion." Noting that he still lives with little electricity, drinking water or other services, he said he'd heard nothing that gave him hope. "It was never about the Iraqi people," he said. "It was about America and its interests."

Muslim Khalaf, 37, of Basra said it reinforced that the invasion was about a "political plan" that probably would haunt Iraq for decades.

"They cannot leave the country. They cannot leave this vast investment and walk away," he said. "They will stay in spite of everything, until they get what they came for: political and economic goals. This report is just a show."

(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Sahar Issa in Baghdad and Nancy A. Youssef in Washington contributed to this report.)

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