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Iraqi Leader Goes Own Way To Fill Top Post

He picks an unknown to lead forces in Baghdad, which raises questions about his motives.

U.s. Officials Skeptical

January 13, 2007|Louise Roug and Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has filled the top military job in Baghdad with a virtually unknown officer chosen over the objections of U.S. and Iraqi military commanders, officials from both governments said.

Iraqi political figures said Friday that Maliki also had failed to consult the leaders of other political factions before announcing the appointment of Lt. Gen. Abud Qanbar.

The appointment is highly significant because it is Maliki's first public move after President Bush's announcement that he was sending more troops to Iraq. The prime mission of those troops is to reduce violence in Baghdad, much of which is blamed on sectarian fighters.

As the Iraqi commander for the capital, Qanbar would play a central role in that campaign, and any ties he might have to sectarian groups could undermine the new U.S. effort.

In his speech Wednesday, in which he announced the troop increase, Bush said political and sectarian interference in security matters would no longer be tolerated.

"If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people," Bush said. "The prime minister understands this."

Maliki's decision to push through his own choice for one of the country's most sensitive military posts -- and to reject another officer who was considered more qualified by the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey -- has renewed questions about the prime minister's intentions.

"It's a delicate situation," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish lawmaker who questioned the choice of Qanbar. "It's very dangerous if it turns out that he has affiliations," he said, naming Maliki's political party and the anti-American Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr.

U.S. officials are skeptical of Qanbar not only because of the way he was named, but because they know little about him. Moreover, they have questioned the degree to which Maliki's government is reliant on sectarian figures, particularly Sadr. Maliki essentially is asking American officials to take Qanbar on trust at a time when they have little left.

Qanbar, a commander in the navy during Saddam Hussein's reign, has not worked with American military officials, who say they know little about him other than that he hails from Amarah, a city in Iraq's Shiite-dominated south, and that he was taken prisoner by American forces near Kuwait during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

U.S. commanders have said that officials in Maliki's government have intervened several times to block them from combating Sadr's Al Mahdi militia, which is accused of being behind much of the bloodshed in Baghdad. When U.S. forces did raid the militia's stronghold of Sadr City, a largely Shiite neighborhood of east Baghdad, Maliki's government publicly criticized them. On several occasions, Maliki ordered the release of suspected militiamen captured there, frustrating U.S. commanders.

The appointment of Qanbar comes as the U.S. military is debating whether to attack Sadr City. As the Iraqi commander, Qanbar could have advance knowledge of U.S. operations. He would command 18 brigades of Iraqi forces that are supposed to be deployed to work with the Americans.

U.S. officials have said the decision on whether to move into Sadr City will be left to the Iraqi government. Privately, senior military officials say that new rules of engagement negotiated with the Iraqis would allow them to go into the neighborhood and target individual insurgent and militia leaders.

At least some Pentagon planners appear to relish the opportunity to target the Al Mahdi militia.

"This time we have a commitment from Maliki and other key players in the Iraqi government ... to have a no-holds-barred arrangement for neighborhoods in Baghdad," said a senior military official who requested anonymity in order to freely discuss military planning. Sadr City "will not be a safe haven" for militias, he said.

Within the Pentagon, not everyone agrees that attacking Sadr City is advisable.

Crucial to the decision will be the incoming U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus. He has not commented on the tactics he plans to pursue, but for the last two years he has overseen the development of the military's new counterinsurgency field manual, which appears to argue against a large-scale invasion of a neighborhood such as Sadr City, particularly in the early part of the new Baghdad security campaign.

The manual's first chapter, which Petraeus is known to have aggressively rewritten, advises commanders that though largescale offensives against insurgents may be necessary, they should be limited.

"Killing every insurgent is normally impossible," the manual says. "Attempting to do so can be counterproductive in some cases; it risks generating popular resentment, creating martyrs that motivate new recruits, and producing cycles of revenge."

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