- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 12, 2007

Violence, corruption and sectarian loyalties are all contributing to the Iraqi government’s failure to meet a series of congressionally mandated benchmarks.

But even if the unruly Iraqi parliament were to pass laws the United States is seeking, analysts and Iraqis say, they would have little impact outside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone.

President Bush is expected to report as early as today that the Iraqis have made scant progress on 18 benchmarks established by Congress in May, setting off a new round of questions about a U.S. “surge” strategy designed to give the Iraqis a chance to pursue political reconciliation.

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No such consensus has occurred, and Joost Hiltermann, an analyst for the International Crisis Group based in Amman, Jordan, said that is because the Iraqi government and parliament are neither able nor willing to govern.

Made up of mostly Kurdish and Shi’ite parties which have no interest in sharing power with a Sunni minority that long oppressed them under Saddam Hussein, the government is not eager to make the concessions needed for political consensus, said Mr. Hiltermann.

“Even if they are under American pressure to give up some power to the Sunni Arabs, the fact is that U.S. leverage is sharply reduced because the United States has not been able to control the violence, it has not stabilized any areas, reconstruction has come to a halt, and now it is talking about leaving altogether,” he said.

Further weakening Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government — whose orders carry little weight outside the four square miles of the Green Zone — is a bitter power struggle with followers of militant Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Sheik al-Sadr, whose bloc of seats in parliament helped put Mr. al-Maliki in power, has pulled his six Cabinet members out of the government. By the end of last month, the largest Sunni bloc had also quit the government.

The Cabinet now has only 25 of its 37 posts occupied, and the 275-seat parliament has been reduced to 188 active members.

Hassan, a Shi’ite doctor who asked his full name not be used out of fear for his safety, said the Iraqi government was being crushed under pressure from two powers — Iran and the United States.

Shi’ite legislators and militiamen are widely thought to be under Iran’s influence. Sheik al-Sadr’s militia is also reportedly under increasing Iranian control.

“The government knows if it loses the friendship of the United States, it will be destroyed. And if it loses the friendship of Iran, they will be assassinated. So, in this environment, do you think anyone can work properly?” Hassan asked.

Instead, he said, ministers and members of parliament are busy lining their pockets while others have been accused of murder and leading death squads. Mr. al-Maliki, he said, has been too weak of a leader to prevent the country’s slow slide into chaos.

Where the government has made progress on the benchmarks, has been in areas that required few, if any, concessions to the Sunnis.

A widely touted oil law — designed to fairly distribute oil revenue among the various factions — has been dragging its way through parliament. But even if that and other laws are passed, there is serious doubt that they will be implemented effectively.

Daniel Serwer of the United States Institute for Peace said Saddam-inspired insurgents and radical Shi’ite Islamists have prevented people from conducting normal business, turned security services into sectarian factions and made it impossible to rebuild the country’s infrastructure.

Even in the safest neighborhood of Baghdad, residents say, there has been only one hour of electricity in the past three days, there is no water pressure left in the taps, and the streets are a mess.

“There is not a functioning government in critical parts of Iraq — it would be hard to have a functioning government in any place subjected to that level of violence,” Mr. Serwer said.

Mr. Bush’s strategy of flooding Baghdad and surrounding areas with U.S. and Iraqi troops was intended to improve the security situation so the Iraqi government could work on legislation that would bridge the sectarian divide.

But intelligence analyst Tom Finger told the House Armed Services Committee yesterday that those conditions had not been achieved.

The violence levels “have not yet been reduced significantly,” the Associated Press quoted him as saying.

Mr. Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group said the White House knows the situation is deteriorating.

“They are moving into ‘Plan B’ mode, which is to contain the civil war,” he said. “But it is going to be a multiplicity of conflicts that will reduce it to a failed state. It is going to be just awful.”

A more hopeful note was sounded by Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, who said there is too much panic in Washington over what is normal political behavior in Iraq.

“If I had to read the tea leaves in Iraq, I don’t think the government is going to fall over this,” he said of reports that the government faces an imminent no-confidence vote. He pointed out the government already has withstood immense pressure.

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