Thu, Jan 11, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Will Iraq play by the rules of the new US strategy?

The US has been walking a fine line between saying Iraq is sovereign and meaningfully steering events there

By Helene Cooper  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , WASHINGTON

It's a refrain that US President Bush and his top deputies have uttered many times over: "Iraq is a sovereign nation, and we stay because they have asked us to be there," US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in October.

"Iraq is a sovereign nation which is conducting its own foreign policy," Bush said in November.

"It's a sovereign nation. It's their system, they make those decisions," said Major General William Caldwell IV, the US command's chief spokesman in Iraq, last week.

But as Bush prepared to unveil his new strategy for Iraq on yesterday night, the question was whether US officials could compel the Iraqis to follow the new US plan?

"Let me put it this way: At the end of the day, we're going to have to do some forcing," said Kenneth Pollack, an expert on Iraq at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

"We have to make it impossible," he said, for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki "not to do the right thing -- for him to say, `Look, we have no choice, the Americans are forcing us.'"

But Pollack and other foreign policy experts said that may require US ultimatums that, thus far, the Bush administration has been unwilling to issue.

Taking US officials at their word, Iraq has embraced its sovereignty. Al-Maliki exercised it in October when he contradicted US officials who said the Iraqi government had agreed to a timetable for security measures.

He exercised it again in November when he ordered US forces to abandon checkpoints and roadblocks they had set up in Baghdad to look for a missing US soldier. He did it one more time in the last days of last year, when he ignored US requests that Saddam Hussein's execution be delayed until legal issues were cleared up.

The tension between US will and Iraqi action -- or inaction -- has been escalating ever since the US transferred sovereignty back to Iraq in 2004.

That has left the US facing a paradox. An assertive Iraqi government, responsible for security and for running the country, is needed if US troops are ever going to be able to hand over control to Iraqi soldiers and leave. But an assertive Iraqi government may not always do what it is told, which could result in a US script that the Iraqis refuse to follow.

Part of the problem is uncertainty that US and Iraqi leaders even have the same objectives. The Bush administration favors reconciliation, in the form of an Iraqi government representative of the country's major ethnic and religious groups: Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds.

But the heavy-handed approach taken by al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government toward Saddam's execution has raised questions about its commitment to reconciliation, some experts say.

Brian Katulis, director of democracy and public diplomacy with the Center for US Progress, a research and advocacy group, said that he could not reconcile al-Maliki's approach, which caused outrage among Iraq's Sunnis, "with his stated expression in favor of national unity."

Bush's new Iraq strategy also calls on al-Maliki to complement an expected US troop increase with an increase in Iraqi troops. But already, administration officials acknowledge that doubts remain about whether the promised Iraqi force, to be made up of Kurdish pesh merga militia units from northern Iraq, will actually show up in Baghdad committed to quelling sectarian fighting.

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