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Downturn in U.S.-Shiite Relations

Prepared by: Robert McMahon, Managing Editor
Updated: March 29, 2006


As sectarian violence has worsened in Iraq, cooler heads among the Shiite, Sunni, and Kurd leadership have been counted on to press ahead with talks on forming a national unity government. A number of recent incidents, including a U.S.-backed raid in a Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad (Reuters) followed by a Bush administration call for Ibrahim al-Jaafari to withdraw his candidacy for prime minister, highlight the growing frictions between U.S. and Shiite leaders. Jaafari, in response, said that U.S. intervention in Iraq's political affairs has "threatened" the democratic process (NYT).

Sectarian conflict appears to be responsible for most of the hundreds of deaths since the bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra on February 22. CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Vali Nasr faults the United States for mishandling Shiite-Sunni antagonisms in Iraq, writing in a recent op ed that Shiites see the U.S. push for a national unity government "as nothing more than coddling the Sunnis" (NYT) and rewarding the insurgency. Brookings Senior Fellow Michael O'Hanlon says Washington has been right in pressing for an Iraqi coalition government but U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzaid should urge prospective Shiite leaders to lay out a course for the future (WashPost), including such issues as sharing oil revenue among the provinces, rehabilitating lower-level Baath party members into society and creating jobs. This new CFR Background Q&A by Lionel Beehner examines whether U.S. influence in Iraq is diminishing.

Middle East expert Anthony Cordesman tells's Bernard Gwertzman in a recent interview that U.S. officials have exaggerated the progress made by Iraqi security forces, saying they will need U.S. support at least one or two more years. CFR Senior Fellow Steven Biddle writes in Foreign Affairs that only after a political agreement is reached among Iraqi factions should the United States consider shifting major military power and authority to local forces. Otherwise, he says, existing tensions in these forces could undermine the power-sharing negotiations currently underway. Washington Post correspondent Anthony Shadid told a recent briefing at CFR that the Iraqi effort at nation building is complicated by the fact that "sectarian and ethnic affiliation is the sole axis around which politics revolve" in Iraq today. This CFR Background Q&A looks at the issues involved in setting up a new Iraqi government.

The Bush administration should consider sending more troops to properly police Baghdad and Anbar provinces, writes CFR Senior Fellow Max Boot. Refusal to do so, Boot says, suggests the need for a "thorough spring cleaning" at the Defense Department (LAT). President Bush has reaffirmed support for the U.S. strategy in Iraq in a series of recent speeches. He referred to the northern city of Tal Afar as a model of how joint U.S.-Iraqi military actions can pacify and secure Iraq. But some journalists who visited the city after the speeches found sectarian divisions amid the calm (Newsweek). The ability of journalists to roam relatively freely was news in itself. Reporters in Iraq say many important stories remain out of reach because of threats to their safety, according to a new article in American Journalism Review.

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