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Iraqi to U.S.: You broke it, you fix it

| Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, 9:21 p.m.

WASHINGTON — One of Iraq's top Sunni Muslim leaders on Tuesday delivered a pointed message to Washington: The United States has a moral responsibility to help defeat Iraq's twin ills of sectarianism and terrorism because those forces were unleashed by the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.

Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlaq repeatedly warned that it would be impossible to conquer a deadly resurgence of al-Qaida in the country's Anbar province without simultaneously pushing for a more representative government than the one led by Nouri al-Maliki, the Shiite Muslim prime minister who's enraged Sunnis with sectarian rhetoric and policies.

So far, the Obama administration has expedited weapons deliveries to al-Maliki and dispatched envoys to nudge him toward reaching out to Sunnis, but the efforts have done little to thwart al-Qaida, which remains in control of Fallujah, the Anbar city that was the scene of the bloodiest battle of the American-led occupation of Iraq.

Mutlaq warned that there would be no peace in Iraq until legitimate Sunni grievances are addressed with reforms to include more Sunnis in security and other government posts, and until there's a crackdown on politicians' inflammatory sectarian rhetoric. He stuck to this theme in interviews, a Wall Street Journal opinion piece and an appearance at the U.S. Institute of Peace, where the audience looked like a reunion of occupation-era policymakers and strategists.

“Arming the Iraqi army is not enough on its own,” Mutlaq said in his speech at the U.S.Institute of Peace. “A cohesive society also is needed to fight terrorism, and if you don't have these two factors, things will be very difficult. And, as you know, the American army with all its might couldn't defeat al-Qaida without the cooperation of the local people.”

Mutlaq was referring to the movement known as the Sons of Iraq, a tribal backlash against al-Qaida in Anbar province that U.S. military commanders say was instrumental in the campaign to rout militants from their strongholds there.

Today, however, tribesmen in Fallujah and other Anbar hubs say they're divided because they lack reliable allies from a pool that includes the openly anti-Sunni government, Sunni politicians who lack street credibility and al-Qaida militants whose promises of protection always turn into takeovers. The effort is hurt because al-Qaida's Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has established a major foothold in Syria and can move its forces back and forth across the Syria-Iraq border largely without challenge.

In telephone interviews, residents of Anbar echoed Mutlaq's talking points but said they no longer viewed him as a legitimate envoy for their concerns because he'd refused to resign from the Maliki administration. Tribal leaders said Mutlaq should have consulted with them about their priorities before he went to Washington representing the Sunni population.

Some Anbar residents say the American silence as al-Maliki's forces target residential areas, ostensibly to flush out al-Qaida militants, amounts to ingratitude for their help in battles against jihadists in late 2005.

Suhaib al Mihamdi, an engineer and housing project manager whose offices were destroyed in recent fighting in Fallujah, said the United States was making a mistake in supporting al-Maliki's “sectarian” government by “giving him weapons to kill us, to kill those who defeated al-Qaida from 2005 to 2007.” Mihamdi said the U.S.-trained Iraqi army's No. 1 mission now was attacking Sunnis.

“They are pushing Sunnis into a corner and leaving them with no allies but the devil, al-Qaida,” Mihamdi said.

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