Running out of time in Iraq

By DAVID IGNATIUS Washington Post Writers Group
Published May 16, 2007

BAGHDAD - The streets are nearly deserted in the Sunni neighborhoods northwest of Baghdad as the Black Hawk helicopter skims over the city. U.S. military commanders say the residents are hiding indoors, or have fled their homes to escape the sectarian violence that has been devouring many of Baghdad's neighborhoods.

Driving into the city from the airport, what you see in the faces of the few Iraqis out on the roads is a hollowed-out look of fear. The friendly waves of four years ago are long past; so are the angry shouts of last year. Now the faces suggest exhaustion and despair from the daily toll of sectarian killing. There's an Iraqi army on the streets now, manning checkpoints, but that doesn't mean there is an Iraqi nation.

With a September deadline looming for U.S. military commanders to report on the progress of the surge of U.S. troops into Baghdad, the core issue remains the need for a political reconciliation between the country's warring sects. The difficulty of achieving that goal was on display here last weekend during a visit by Adm. William Fallon, who, as head of U.S. Central Command, has overall responsibility for the war.

Top Shiite and Sunni leaders each insisted that the other side is to blame for the violence that torments the country. Each demanded that the other side make the first concessions. Each voiced support for the surge of American troops, while at the same time complaining that their own neighborhoods aren't much safer.

The CentCom commander met first with Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a languid Shiite cleric who is the leader of Iraq's biggest Shiite party. Hakim told Fallon that "the real problem in Iraq is the Sunnis." Even if the Shiites made concessions to the Sunnis by sharing oil revenues or easing de-Baathification, Hakim said, "the enemies will never accept."

"So it's in God's hands?" said Fallon, using a Muslim expression to provoke a response. He suggested that because Hakim's Shiite alliance commands a majority in the Iraqi Parliament, Hakim should take the initiative and offer concessions. But Hakim's aides immediately protested that God's will didn't extend to making compromises with the Sunni terrorists who have been bombing Shiite neighborhoods.

A few minutes later, Fallon was in the office of Iraq's vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, the country's top Sunni leader. Hashimi came prepared with a list of concessions he wants from the Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. "The man in the driver's seat is the prime minister, " he insisted. "He should make the compromises."

The back-to-back meetings offered a snapshot of Iraq's political impasse. "With each side, you saw the polar opposite, " Fallon said later.

So what can the U.S. military commanders do to break the sectarian deadlock? Their strategy focuses on combating the deadliest threats - the al-Qaida suicide bombers who murder dozens of Shiites nearly every day at markets and police stations, and the Shiite death squads that terrorize Sunni neighborhoods. Commanders hope that if these sectarian killers can be contained, then ordinary Shiites and Sunnis will feel more secure - and a national process of reconciliation can begin.

U.S. commanders think their squeeze on Sunni and Shiite extremists is having an impact. In al-Qaida's stronghold of Anbar province, tribal leaders have begun allying with American forces against the Sunni terrorists. According to Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, who commands day-to-day military operations in Iraq, there were just 60 attacks in Anbar last week, compared with 480 per week a year ago. But al-Qaida continues its deadly attacks, as in last Saturday's brutal ambush that killed four U.S. soldiers and left three missing.

The Shiite death squads, too, are under pressure. The number of sectarian murders is down in Baghdad. More important, the radical Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr signaled recently that he wants to talk to the Maliki government about a political deal. Fallon says Sadr's followers "are starting to head off in different directions."

"We're chipping away at the problem, " says Fallon. "But we don't have the time to chip away." He hopes that a dialogue with Iran and Syria can help stabilize Iraq. "Reconciliation isn't likely in the time we have available, " Fallon says, "but some form of accommodation is a must."

David Ignatius' e-mail address is davidignatius@washpost.com.