Iraqi soldiers took charge of a comparatively calm southern province on Thursday from an Italian contingent – one of several recent moves that suggest the country’s nascent military is steadily gaining the ability to operate independently of US-led multinational forces.
On Wednesday, however, the United Nations announced that 3,590 Iraqis were killed in July, now the worst month on record since the end of the invasion, and declined only slightly to 3,009 in August.
The UN said bodies often bear signs of acid burns, missing skin and eyes, wounds caused by power drills, and other indications of torture. The UN said torture was rampant in Iraqi detention centres
These figures suggest that the new military, in spite of its growing operational capacity, is nonetheless incapable of stemming the country’s sectarian violence.
The handover of the relatively peaceable Dhi Qar governorate marks the second time that the US-led multinational forces have turned over an entire province to Iraqi local control. In July, British, Australian and Japanese forces pulled out of Muthanna, also in the south, where powerful tribes have kept the peace since the 2003 invasion.
Sectarian violence, however, rages in the capital, where in one particularly grisly four-day stretch last week some 165 bodies were found dumped – the majority in Sunni areas – many bearing the marks of torture.
Although Sunni guerillas are also implicated in the killings, the main perpetrators are believed to be Shia militias, in particular the Mahdi Army loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Consequently, US officials are asking why, four months after taking power and promising to address Sunni concerns, has Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Shia-led coalition government – which includes some of Mr Sadr’s followers – failed to articulate a credible plan to deal with those militias.
Mr Maliki has allowed the US military and Iraqi troops to attack specific headquarters in and around Baghdad, leading to several firefights in which dozens of militiamen were killed and several leaders captured.
However, US military officers are reportedly frustrated by their inability to go into the teeming slum district of Sadr City, the Mahdi Army’s main stronghold, as well as restrictions on raids on mosques, government buildings, and other sensitive targets which, not surprisingly, are believed to be used by militias as sanctuaries.
Just as importantly, US officers say that Mr Maliki’s government has failed to spell out a policy on the militias to his own military, leaving Iraqi officers unsure when they are allowed to strike against militiamen.
Much of the sectarian killing is blamed on rogue commanders and is not necessarily approved by Moqtada al-Sadr. However, those leaders may maintain independent connections with Sadrist politicians, who are probably the most powerful faction within Mr Maliki’s Shia-led parliamentary coalition and also control key ministries such as health, agriculture, and transportation.
In fact, Mr Maliki may be playing it smart. The anti-American Mr Sadr, who led two insurrections in 2004, is quite capable of rendering Iraq ungovernable if pushed into a corner. However, some Shia observers say the cleric now believes that laying low is the fastest path to the withdrawal of the occupation forces.
The government is also worried about the possibility of a US confrontation with Iran, whose security forces are believed to have cultivated clients among sub-groups of the Mahdi Army. Iraqi officials said they warned Iran not to turn Iraq into a “battlefield” during a visit by Mr Maliki to Tehran last week. Consequently, the government may be reluctant to weaken its support base among the Shia.
However, by taking a cautious line towards the militias Mr Maliki risks losing credibility in Washington. Former congressman Lee Hamilton, co-chairman of a bipartisan commission due to make recommendations on Iraq to George W. Bush, the US president, after November’s elections, said this week that the Iraqi government needed “to show its own citizens soon – and the citizens of the United States – that it is deserving of continued support”.
Mr Bush for his part said on Wednesday that the US would stand by the Iraqi government, “so long as the government continues to make the tough choices necessary for peace to prevail”.