Iraq's gloomy reality becomes increasingly clear

PHILADELPHIA — PHILADELPHIA -- Even key Republicans are finally beginning to grasp how dire is the Iraq situation.

While Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was on an emergency trip last week to Baghdad, insisting that Iraqis are "making progress," the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee was giving a bleak assessment of his trip there, also last week.


Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia said bluntly that if the Iraqi government was unable "to function" and reduce the violence "in two or three months," the U.S. government would have to consider whether "a change of course" was needed. "And I wouldn't take off the table any option at this time," he added.

He didn't suggest, however, what "a change of course" might mean.


Indeed, Mr. Warner's subsequent words showed why it's so hard for honest politicians, whether Republican or Democrat, to find a viable alternative to the administration's failed Iraq policy. The senator blamed Iraqi leaders for their inability to stop the violence and restore sanity and services to their people. "You do not see them ... doing what is necessary," he said.

Mr. Warner is correct that Iraq's progress - and the prospects for a U.S. troop withdrawal - depends heavily on the competence of Iraqi leaders. But what if Iraq's government is incapable of salvaging the country's future - and American policy?

Top U.S. military commanders in Iraq have been making a similar point for more than a year: Unless Iraqis can pull together a workable national unity government that includes majority Shiite Arabs along with Kurds and members of the disaffected Sunni Arab minority, the country will disintegrate. Moreover, if there's no functional government, the Iraqi military we're training won't be able to fight the insurgents who are pulling Iraq apart.

What Mr. Warner - and Ms. Rice - saw in Baghdad, however, is an Iraqi government that barely exists. For weeks, unnamed U.S. commanders and officials in Baghdad have been telling journalists that they are losing faith in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. They say he is unable to check sectarian violence and foster national reconciliation. Even Ms. Rice warned that Mr. al-Maliki's 6-month-old government had reached "a critical time." Her own plane was forced to circle Baghdad for nearly an hour before landing because of a mortar attack near the airport.

On my last trip to Iraq in June, it was clear that the prospects for the al-Maliki government were far from rosy. Why should anyone be surprised?

Having lived under dictatorship or in exile, for decades, Iraqi leaders have no experience in running a country. Mr. al-Maliki was a compromise choice, a man whose chief qualification was that he had served as an aide to the previous (and incompetent) Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and came from Mr. al-Jaafari's Dawa Party. The choice was made by the majority coalition of Shiite parties, who fought among themselves for weeks over the pick.

Cabinet posts were doled out to the various sectarian parties according to the number of assembly seats they had won in elections. Many ministers are more loyal to their parties than to the al-Maliki central government, and operate independent fiefdoms. Mr. al-Maliki didn't even appoint a Cabinet secretary (the official responsible for coordinating ministries and Cabinet meetings) until last month.

The interior minister, Jawad Bolani, was chosen because he had no close affiliation to any party. The hope was that such "independence" would enable Mr. Bolani to purge the ministry of sectarian death squads that have infiltrated the police and commando forces. But lacking a political base, Mr. Bolani has proved too weak - with one recent exception - to control or clean out this crucial ministry.


It is difficult to see how Iraq's government will get much better. There were far more competent candidates than Mr. al-Maliki in the running when he was selected, such as Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi of the other large Shiite party, known as SCIRI (the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq). Kassim Daoud, a secular Shiite who served as national security adviser to former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, also would have been a good choice.

The Iraqi constitution provides for a new prime minister if the national assembly issues a vote of no confidence. Yet it is hard to see how such a change could happen. The Shiite alliance would have to agree on an alternative candidate. Iran, which has strong ties to the two big Shiite parties, would also play an indirect role in vetting the choice.

Given how much trouble the Shiites had in agreeing on Mr. al-Maliki, I find it hard to believe that they could easily concur on another choice. Moreover, Mr. al-Maliki has the backing of the powerful, radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who commands a large bloc of seats in the assembly.

Some Iraqi critics of Mr. al-Maliki argue privately that the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, could impose an alternative candidate. I don't think this kind of heavy-handed move would work. Many Shiite politicians are already suspicious of Mr. Khalilzad, a Sunni Muslim, whom they accuse of coddling Sunnis in his effort to entice them into a national unity government.

So the United States is stuck with a dysfunctional Iraqi government that will be hard-pressed to stabilize the country. This further undercuts any effort to change course in Iraq and reduce the number of U.S. troops there. Condoleezza Rice must have grasped this unpleasant truth by the time she left Baghdad.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is