Tags: Americans | Iraq | control | struggle

Americans Struggle to Give Up Iraq Control

Monday, 01 March 2010 09:56 AM

BAGHDAD — At 3 a.m. on Feb. 19, U.S. and Iraqi special forces burst into the home of Sheikh Turki Talal, leader of the powerful Ghartani tribe, and hauled the 71-year-old to jail on a terrorism-related arrest warrant.

Within hours, phones began ringing—in the offices of U.S. and Iraqi commanders, senior Iraqi parliamentarians, and even Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has direct command over the arresting unit, according to U.S. and Iraqi commanders. By the evening of Feb. 20, Sheikh Turki was a free man again.

U.S. commanders feared the arrest of Sunni tribal leader Sheikh Turki Talal could have potentially destabilized key areas of southern Baghdad ahead of March elections.

The sheikh was the latest of a handful of Sunni tribal leaders to be arrested in recent weeks, a trend that some American commanders suspect may be aimed at influencing parliamentary elections on March 7.

For American commanders, a smooth election in March could speed up this year's scheduled U.S. troop withdrawal. But if the polls are viewed as illegitimate and bring violence, commanders say they are prepared to keep combat troops here longer.

U.S. commanders worried that Sheikh Turki's arrest had the potential to destabilize key portions of southern Baghdad that were once a hotbed for the anti-American insurgency. His tribe, which he says has 125,000 members, has been instrumental in pacifying its territory, an extensive patchwork of irrigation canals and palm groves ringing south Baghdad, known as the Baghdad belts.

U.S. Special Forces took part in Sheikh Turki's arrest, following their Iraqi partners' lead as called for by the agreement that governs the actions of U.S. troops in Iraq. But it wasn't long before U.S. officials were saying the operation shouldn't have taken place.

"We immediately sensed that people didn't understand the magnitude of this arrest," said a senior U.S. commander in the area.

The detention and quick release of Sheikh Turki showed how the U.S., having relinquished control in Iraq, still tries to wield influence here.

Some American attempts to exert influence in the run-up to elections have faltered. After a prominent Sunni politician, Saleh al-Mutlaq, was disqualified from running by a government-backed panel, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden flew in to try to broker a compromise. The disqualification threatened to taint the vote, American officials said. But Mr. Mutlaq hasn't been reinstated. After calling on Feb. 20 for his popular Sunni party to boycott the vote, on Thursday Mr. Mutlaq reversed his decision and urged supporters to "crawl to the voting booths" to cast their votes.

A senior American officer said Sheikh Turki's arrest appeared to have come on orders from "a Shiite-dominated central government running through a list of Sunnis they don't like and arresting them before the elections."

The Sunni arrests have fueled complaints by Mr. Maliki's political opponents that the prime minister is running a sectarian campaign. Mr. Maliki, in a declaration Thursday that appeared to be seeking to make amends with Sunni voters, announced the reinstatement of 20,000 army officers who were dismissed after the fall of the Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein.

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Monday, 01 March 2010 09:56 AM
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