Image: Al-Maliki
Ali Abbas  /  AP file
Iraqi Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki has been urged, even by supporters, to make changes in his Cabinet.
updated 9/20/2006 5:56:28 PM ET 2006-09-20T21:56:28

Four months after Iraq’s unity government took office, hope is turning to disappointment. Key U.S. leaders are hinting that Iraq’s leaders must make hard decisions — and soon — if they expect American support to continue.

So far, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government has failed to stop sectarian militias responsible for much of the bloodshed, or to make headway in luring Sunni Arabs away from the insurgency.

Al-Maliki also has run into persistent trouble from U.S. critics in Congress angry at his recent meeting with Iran’s president and his refusal to condemn the Hezbollah militia, which fought Israel.

Publicly, the Bush administration continues to offer strong support for al-Maliki, with President Bush saying Wednesday he is optimistic the government will succeed. But Bush also offered a not-too-subtle hint that the American commitment to Iraq and its current government is not open-ended.

The president said Iraqis could count on U.S. support “so long as the government continues to make the tough choices necessary for peace to prevail.”

His words are a clear signal that Washington expects al-Maliki’s government to make those tough choices, including cracking down on Shiite militias — some of them led by politicians who are among the prime minister’s key supporters.

More aggressive militias
But rather than intimidating Shiite militias, the security crackdown in Baghdad appears to be emboldening them as sweeps of U.S. troops move closer to Sadr City, stronghold of the Mahdi Army of Shiite radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

U.S. soldiers say they have noted militias becoming more aggressive as American and Iraqi forces seek to pacify Shiite neighborhoods on the fringes of Sadr City, which is part of Baghdad.

Even al-Maliki’s supporters acknowledge the unity government has failed to gain traction but insist the prime minister is not entirely to blame.

“(He) needs a better team than the current one,” Shiite lawmaker Hassan al-Suneid said Wednesday. “Some blocs want him to make some changes or replacements in the Cabinet.”

Sunni lawmaker Adnan al-Dulaimi said the problem is that the government has failed to galvanize support among tribal leaders, clerics and politicians.

That certainly is a long way from the rosy forecasts U.S. officials made six months ago as Iraqi politicians put together their government of national unity after December elections.

More, not less, violence
At that point, U.S. officials predicted a coalition of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds would give all of Iraq’s communities a stake in government. Over time, they hoped that unity government would calm the tensions which threaten to plunge the country into full-scale civil war.

Instead, the first months of al-Maliki’s government have been marked by sharp increases in bloodshed, forcing U.S. commanders to send thousands more American soldiers into the Iraqi capital.

U.S. officers say privately that Iraqi commanders are themselves frustrated by the lack of direction from al-Maliki’s government on how to deal with the militias, especially the Mahdi Army and others affiliated with Shiite political movements.

Al-Maliki, a Shiite, appears reluctant to crack down on the militias for fear of losing support from their patrons. But without a move against Shiite gunmen, it is unlikely his government can persuade Sunni Arab insurgents to lay down their arms either.

“We’re pushing this (al-Maliki) government to get a policy” on how to deal with the militias, Maj. Gen. James Thurman, the commander of coalition forces in Baghdad, told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Right now, the militias “are holding the rule of law in contempt,” Thurman complained.

The message is also likely to be delivered by a bipartisan commission due to make recommendations to Bush after the November congressional elections.

Former congressman Lee Hamilton, co-chairman of the group, said Tuesday that the Iraqi government “needs to show its own citizens soon — and the citizens of the United States — that it is deserving of continued support.”

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