In Iraq, train wrecks on two tracks?

Iraqi and U.S. officials question whether Iraq's prime minister is up to the (impossible) job he's facing.

Published September 20, 2006 1:53PM (EDT)

Whenever violence in Iraq has dominated the news in the past, George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice have reminded Americans that trains are running on two tracks over there -- and that they ought to be watching the other one. Yes, all those car bombings and assassinations and suiciders are a bummer, they'd say. But keep your eyes on the "quiet progress" being made as Iraqis come together on the political front.

How will they do it this time?

The security news from Iraq is as bleak as ever. As the Associated Press reports, seven people were killed today when a truck bomber blew himself up outside a police building in Baghdad, just one incident in a 24-hour period that has seen at least 45 deaths throughout Iraq. Four more U.S. troops have died in Iraq since the weekend, bringing the U.S. death toll ever closer to 2,700. U.S. military commanders expect violence to increase when Ramadan begins next week.

So how 'bout that political front? Well, hmm. As the New York Times reports this morning, Iraqi and U.S. officials are beginning to doubt whether Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has the "political muscle and decisiveness" to prevent Iraq from sliding -- to the extent it hasn't already slid -- into civil war. Maliki has done little to stop sectarian violence in Iraq, and Iraqis complain that the government seems to have done nothing to improve their lives. "There's no security, no job opportunities, no services, nothing at all," 18-year-old Muhammad Jabar Abdul Ridha tells the Times. "This government hasn't done anything better than the previous one."

Even Bush seems to be offering at least tacit criticism of Maliki. In his speech before the United Nations Tuesday, the president told the Iraqi people that the United States would "not yield the future of your country to terrorists and extremists." But "in return," he said, "your leaders must rise to the challenges your country is facing, and make difficult choices to bring security and prosperity."

The problem for Maliki is that the choices are more than just "difficult." As the Times notes, there's no easy way to crack down on sectarian violence in Iraq without alienating Sunni Arabs "connected to the insurgency," Shiite leaders with "large followings and private armies," or maybe both. That leaves Maliki -- and his country and ours -- stuck in the middle with no obvious way out.

"The thing you hear the most is that he never makes any decisions," a former Bush administration official tells the Times. "And that drives Bush crazy. He doesn't take well to anyone who talks about getting something accomplished and then refuses to take the first step." It might be fair to observe here that this sort of thinking might be the reason for Maliki's plight: If Bush hadn't been so quick to take the "first step" in Iraq without thinking more about the second, Maliki probably wouldn't find it so difficult to accomplish anything now.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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