Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has had a rocky first hundred days in office. His cabinet, hobbled by political infighting, got off the ground slowly. Some tough rhetoric and tactical shifts when it finally coalesced raised hopes of a fresh start, but sectarian violence quickly dashed them. Domestically, Maliki gets high marks for putting competent ministers in place, but his opponents—even those not out to kill him—paint him as a stooge of the United States. The death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi on his watch seems, in retrospect, small consolation given the situation in his capital today.
In a speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress, Maliki said the fates of the United States and Iraq were intertwined (WashPost), calling his country the “front line” in a global war on terrorism. He appealed for more U.S. aid, but stressed “there needs to be a greater reliance on Iraqis and Iraq companies" (AP).
He did not directly mention Hezbollah and Israeli battles with the guerrilla group in southern Lebanon. Ahead of his trip, Maliki aroused concern in Washington when he did not stand with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan (NYT) in laying blame for the violence primarily at the feet of Hezbollah, whose ties to Shiite Iran are as difficult to fathom as those of Maliki’s political party, the Islamic Dawa Party. The Iraqi government’s complex relationship with Iran is explored in this op-ed by CFR Senior Fellows Steven Simon and Ray Takeyh. A CFR symposium last month explored the rising influence of Shiism.
Whatever Maliki’s views of the Levant, security issues are dominating his visit to Washington. On Tuesday, Maliki and Bush announced that more troops—from other parts of Iraq, though how many is unknown—will be sent to Baghdad, which has recently descended into a new level of anarchy in spite of Maliki’s much-touted security clampdown. Many analysts had predicted bloodshed abating somewhat after the death of Zarqawi and the establishment of a national unity government. Instead, the casualty rate for Iraqi civilians has actually climbed and now eclipses one hundred per day, the worst stretch of violence in the postwar period, according to a new UN report (PDF).
Outside of Baghdad, not everything is bleak, Maliki says. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, the prime minister points to the complete transfer of al-Muthanna province over to Iraqi security forces as “a crucial first step in a sequence of events ultimately leading to Iraq standing entirely on its own” (subscription req'd). But in Iraq’s second and third cities—Basra and Kirkuk—complex challenges, which go well beyond the current violence to the volatile questions of Iraq’s federal structure and ethnic mix, suggest the height of the steps to follow.
The recent upturn in violence puts plans for a U.S. troop drawdown on hold. The Pentagon unveiled a new counterinsurgency strategy in March to “clear, hold, and build” insurgent strongholds while spreading security outward. Andrew Krepinevich, the author of this strategy, says in this podcast that the process takes years—not months—to implement, predicting U.S. forces may be in Iraq for decades to come.
Can Maliki restore order to Iraq? Doubts persist. Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE), no proponent of a centralized Iraq, says a “Sunni buy-in” is necessary to tame the insurgency. Maliki’s recent offer of amnesty to Sunnis has so far done little to achieve national reconciliation. In this Foreign Affairs roundtable, CFR’s Stephen Biddle suggests threatening to arm the Shiite-led Iraqi military with heavier artillery to “provide a very important incentive for the Sunnis to compromise.”