Saddam Hussein's execution may have ended an era in Iraq's turbulent history, but will his successors be able to avoid the abyss of sectarian strife, asks Salah Hemeid
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A Cairo-based Iraqi woman cries as she holds a photograph of Iraq's late president; Iraqi Sunni Arabs pray at the grave of hanged dictator Saddam Hussein in his home village of Awja; an image grab from a mobile phone video shows Saddam lying dead after his execution. The images instigated negative reactions internationally, and regionally. The Iraqi authorities want to punish a senior official who filmed the execution then leaked the footage showing him taunted by Shia guards
After months of being accused of a lack of political will, and even impotence, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki ordered a new crackdown on sectarian gunmen who kill hundreds a week in Baghdad while US President George W Bush conducted a major reshuffle of commanders and diplomats in ahead of outlining his new strategy in Iraq. Maliki said the goal of his plan is to protect the Iraqi people and to ensure that weapons are in the hands of government forces, not militias, regardless of their sectarian or political affiliation. He said Iraq's armed forces would not permit anyone to act as a replacement to his government.
Maliki said the new Baghdad security plan, which depends on Iraqi forces, had gone through several revisions before it was put to action. The Iraqi prime minister did not divulge details of his plan, though he acknowledged that Iraqi forces would be supported by multinational (ie American) troops. Mohammad Al-Askari, an advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of Defence, said the plan will depend on "a greater mobility and quicker response" from field commanders. "It will focus on increasing fire power, hot pursuit, and freedom of action by all the units involved," he told Al-Ahram Weekly from Baghdad. He said a purge of "sectarian elements" in the ministries of interior and defence is part of the plan.
Other Iraqi officials said the plan will divide Baghdad into nine sections, each under the command of an army brigade which will take full control and carry out sweeping operations including house-to-house searches, disarmament and arrest of gunmen operating in the neighbourhoods.
"Any person who carries arms will be arrested and those who resist will be shot," said one high ranking official.
To head off accusations of sectarianism, the Baghdad task force will be comprised of Shia and Sunni troops and Kurdish peshmergas (fighters) who will jointly operate while American commanders will observe closely, said the officials on condition of anonymity.
Parallel to the new Iraqi endeavour, President Bush is expected to announce a new strategy Wednesday that will include adding as many as 20,000 American combat troops to the present US troop presence in Baghdad. American media reported that Maliki had agreed with Bush in a long teleconference Thursday to match the American troop increase, made up of five combat brigades that will arrive roughly one a month, by sending three more Iraqi brigades to Baghdad over the next month and a half. Under the plan, American soldiers will delve deep into Baghdad's most dangerous neighbourhoods and provide backup to Iraqi troops conducting door-to-door searches.
Maliki's new plan immediately drew criticism from Sunni leaders who fear that Sunni areas will be targeted. "It is unconstitutional and unlawful," said Mahmoud Al-Mashhadani, speaker of the Iraqi parliament, arguing that it should be endorsed first by lawmakers. "How can one be sure it won't be polluted [by sectarianism]?" he said in a statement. Adnan Al-Dulaimi, another Sunni leader, expressed doubts about whether Maliki is ready to tackle militias loyal to his fellow Shias, a key demand of the once dominant Sunni minority. The influential Association of Muslim Scholars even went as far as urging former officers of Saddam's defunct army to reorganise and topple the government and drive US troops out of Iraq.
In the US, some American officials acknowledge deep scepticism about whether the new joint plan can succeed. Former commander of NATO forces in Kosovo, General Wesley Clark, said that sending more US troops to Iraq would be "too little, too late" and could worsen the situation for coalition forces. Clark said the time for a military solution was past and a region-wide initiative was needed to try to end the bloody sectarian violence. "We've never had enough troops in Iraq," Clark wrote in Britain's Independent on Sunday newspaper.
Bush's Democratic opponents, who took control of Congress last week, question the need to increase troop numbers. More than 3,000 Americans have died in Iraq since the 2003 invasion and many voters favour a rapid withdrawal as US forces find themselves increasingly caught in sectarian crossfire. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said newly empowered Democrats will not give Bush a blank check to wage war in Iraq, hinting they could deny funding if he seeks additional troops.
This may be one last push by both Maliki and Bush to end the nearly four-year old insurgency in Iraq before they finally lose patience and quit. Without stabilising the capital and other hot spots, the physical and political reconstruction of Iraq is impossible. Dozens of Iraqis have been killed in Baghdad since the execution of Saddam Hussein on 31 December, mostly in car bombs, and many other dead bodies were found in the nearly deserted streets of the beleaguered Iraqi capital.
One challenge to Maliki is to how to deal with Al-Mehdi Army of the Shia radical cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, blamed by US commanders and many Sunnis for much of the sectarian violence. Iraqi officials have said that the US and Iraqi force planned a tactical offensive against Al-Mehdi Army militia. Maliki has repeatedly rejected criticism that he has not confronted Al-Mehdi Army before now, saying the Shia armed groups can be tamed through political dialogue.
As part of the plan, Washington is urging Maliki to reach out to the disaffected Sunni minority after the sectarian tension generated by his decision to rush through the execution of Saddam Hussein before the New Year and by an Internet video showing pro-Sadr officials taunting the former president on the gallows. The Bush administration is reportedly rallying support from neighbouring Arab countries to encourage moderate Sunni groups such as the Islamic Party to stay in the Maliki government and help in bringing Sunnis, who feel humiliated by Saddam's execution, into the political process.
Maliki could have been emboldened by Saddam's execution but Sunnis will likely view his haste, on the first day of the Bairam, a key religious feast, as a further proof of the conspiracy being waged against them by Iraqi Shias. If one were to hope for a positive result from Saddam's hanging, it would be that the death encourages Iraqi Shias to reach out vigorously for their Sunni compatriots. Meantime, Iraqi Sunni politicians have to allay deep suspicions among Shias that they are just looking to overthrow Iraq's new rulers and bring the Baathists back to power.