By SAM DAGHER
Published: April 25, 2009
BAGHDAD — On April 18, American and British officials from a secretive unit called the Force Strategic Engagement Cell flew to Jordan to try to persuade one of Saddam Hussein’s top generals — the commander of the final defense of Baghdad in 2003 — to return home to resume efforts to make peace with the new Iraq.
But the Iraqi commander, Lt. Gen. Raad Majid al-Hamdani, rebuffed them.
After a year of halting talks mediated by the Americans, he said, he concluded that Iraq’s leader, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, simply was not interested in reconciliation.
The American appeal — described by General Hamdani and not previously reported — illustrates what could become one of the biggest obstacles to stability in Iraq. Mr. Maliki’s pledges to reconcile with some of the most ardent opponents of his government have given way to what some say is a hardening sectarianism that threatens to stoke already simmering political tensions and rising anger over a recent spate of bombings aimed at Shiites.
On March 28, Mr. Maliki’s Shiite-led government arrested a prominent Sunni leader on charges of heading a secret armed wing of Mr. Hussein’s Baath Party. A week later, the prime minister accused Baathists of orchestrating car bombings that killed more than 40 people. On Monday, he lashed out again, saying the Baath Party was “filled with hate from head to toe.”
Mr. Maliki’s earlier effort to reunite the country was one of Washington’s primary benchmarks for measuring political progress in Iraq. The goal was to separate Baathist opponents of the government who were considered more willing to trade violence for political power from intractable extremists, many of them religious.
Early last year, under intense American pressure, Mr. Maliki pushed through Parliament a law to ease restrictions on the return of Baath Party members to public life. But 15 months later, the law has yet to be put into effect.
Mr. Maliki’s retreat risks polarizing Iraqis again and eroding hard-fought security gains. One hundred sixty people died in bombings on Thursday and Friday alone. There is no evidence that Baathists were involved, but fears are rising that they and jihadi insurgents are increasingly cooperating in areas, Baghdad especially, that have been largely quiet over the last year.
Mr. Maliki has changed his tone despite American pressure to reconcile with some officials under Mr. Hussein, most of them Sunni Arabs.
“He is no different from the political and religious leaders who are driven by emotions and animosity toward anything related to the past,” General Hamdani said of Mr. Maliki, in a written response to questions about his talks with the government.
The prime minister’s return to a hard line appears to be motivated by a number of factors.
Despite Mr. Maliki’s success in provincial elections in January and in projecting himself as a strong nonsectarian leader, his Dawa Party recognizes that it still needs his Shiite partners to govern. And his Shiite rivals, many of whom are close to Iran, have accused him of recently orchestrating a wholesale return of Baathists to bolster his standing with the Sunni minority. Mr. Maliki, political experts say, cannot afford to alienate fellow Shiites ahead of the general elections in December.
Ahmad Chalabi, a Shiite politician who led the push six years ago to purge Iraq of the Baath Party, said that despite Mr. Maliki’s pragmatic efforts to court Sunni support, the prime minister retained a visceral hatred for everything associated with the Baath Party and the brutal former regime. Mr. Maliki is also suspicious of bringing back some of the Sunni old guard, which Mr. Chalabi says is part of an American plan “to stiffen Iraq into opposing Iran and help integrate Iraq back into the Arab fold.”
All of this has bewildered many Sunni Arabs who advocate reconciliation, and has mobilized the hard-liners. General Hamdani insisted that he represented only officials of the former military and security apparatus and was not negotiating for the exiled Baathist leadership, but he said any concessions from the government would have inched reconciliation forward.
He sensed this nearly two months ago, he said, when he met in the Sheraton Hotel in Amman, Jordan, with representatives of Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a lieutenant of Mr. Hussein’s who is the last high-ranking fugitive from American forces, and who is believed to be helping to finance the insurgency. The two men told General Hamdani that Mr. Douri sent them to convey approval of his efforts to regain the jobs and property rights of former officers and to relax prohibitions against Baathists. General Hamdani said he had received even more favorable feedback from Mr. Douri’s rival for the party leadership, Mohammed Younis al-Ahmed. He said he had direct contacts with Mr. Ahmed.
But the hardening of the government’s stance on Baathists seems to be dousing any flicker of optimism. In a recent message, Mr. Douri rallied insurgents of all stripes to fight American troops and Mr. Maliki’s government.
From Washington’s point of view, reconciliation with approachable Baathists would isolate extremists like Mr. Douri’s followers. There lies the fundamental difference with the Iraqi side, which is shackled by its fears.
“The mere ideas of the Baath Party are dangerous because they are about conspiracies, infiltration and coups,” Kamal al-Saedi, a member of Parliament and one of Mr. Maliki’s partisans on the government’s reconciliation committee, said Wednesday.
The United States Embassy in Baghdad declined to answer any questions about the extent of American involvement in reconciliation talks.
General Hamdani said, however, that American and British officials had attended nearly every meeting since March 2008, in both Amman and Baghdad, between him, his associates and the Iraqi government.
Mr. Chalabi said that Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, a senior adviser on the National Security Council, received promises two months ago from one of Mr. Maliki’s aides to be “reasonable” concerning the Baathists.
Mr. Maliki’s adviser for reconciliation, Mohammed Salman al-Saady, said he knew nothing of those promises, but he acknowledged that Mr. Maliki’s government had “fundamental differences” with Washington over how far to extend reconciliation.
Mr. Saady said the talks with General Hamdani stalled because many of his demands were against government policy.
“According to the Constitution, holding negotiations with the Baath Party is a red line that cannot be crossed,” Mr. Saady said. But he underscored the government’s readiness to engage Baathists who renounced their party affiliation and accepted accountability for crimes they might have committed.
A Baath operative in hiding north of Baghdad said in an interview that if the government were to become serious about reconciliation, it would seek to amend the Constitution and let the party resume its role in public life, like the Communist Party after the fall of the Soviet Union.
“The Constitution is not a holy book — it can be amended,” he said.
Alissa J. Rubin contributed reporting from Baghdad, and an Iraqi employee of The New York Times from Salahuddin Province.
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