Can Maliki Disarm the Militias?

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American officials are stumped as to how Iraq’s new prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, is going to carry out his pledge to disarm the Shiite and Kurdish militias that are carrying out a de facto civil war in the country:

Administration officials said that in his meeting with Ms. Rice, Mr. Maliki spoke of “re-establishing trust” among Iraqis by acting quickly to restore electrical power and root out the influence of militias in Iraq’s police forces, which number about 135,000 nationwide.

With an estimated thousands of these forces in Baghdad alone infiltrated by the Badr brigade, a Shiite militia whose members have been accused of kidnapping and killing Sunnis, American officials said they did not know what sort of muscle or conciliation Mr. Maliki would use to carry out this pledge. “It’s clearly one of the high priorities for the government,” Ms. Rice said. “How they go about that I think is something they will have to work through.” Mr. Rumsfeld, asked how American armed forces could do the job, said: “The first thing I’d say is, we don’t. The Iraqis do.” The new Iraqi government “undoubtedly and unquestionably will be addressing the question,” he added. “Other countries have dealt with these issues. It’s possible that these things can be done.”

A lot of hand-waving, in other words. But does anyone think it’s realistic for the Shiite parties to disarm their militias? Back when the CPA was running things, their approach to the militias involved creating a “virtuous circle,” as Spencer Ackerman reported last year: “If security increased around the country and Iraqis reconciled their deep religious and ethnic divisions, the parties would no longer require paramilitary ‘insurance policies.'” Getting rid of those paramilitaries would, in turn, improve security further. It was a pretty good idea in theory.

Except that the CPA tried this approach for two years, and it didn’t work. Security never improved, stuff never got built, political developments got worse, not better, and the main Shiite parties are all — somewhat understandably — built up their militias for protection against a growing Sunni insurgency. And that, in turn, is making the security situation even worse. It’s a cycle that seems structurally impossible to reverse, even if Ayatollah al-Sistani is now ordering the militias to disarm. Under the circumstances, it’s not surprising that Rice and Rumsfeld are shrugging and saying, “Well, figure it out somehow.” No one has any idea how to fix things.

One also can’t help but suspect that Rice and Rumsfeld’s overt backing for Maliki will only make the latter’s job harder, not easier. Iraqis, as we’ve learned, aren’t terribly keen on taking their marching orders from Washington: Only a year ago, Rumsfeld warned the Shiites not to purge the security forces of ex-Baathists, and yet they did just that. (UPDATE: See this story; some Shiites are already angry at the visit.)

Meanwhile, Spencer had a new piece up the other day noting that Iraq’s new prime minister might not be the best person to reconcile the country after all — Maliki has been involved in nearly every move that’s pissed off the Sunnis over the last few years. And in very related and very scary news, Shiite militiamen are moving into the oil-rich and Kurdish-dominated city of Kirkuk, ready to take the city back from the Kurds. One has to wonder whether even Rice and Rumsfeld believe that things are heading in a positive direction…

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