BAGHDAD – Iraq’s Shiite Muslim Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki Saturday announced that his government would open its doors to some former members of Saddam Hussein’s predominantly Sunni Baath Party.

The announcement by al-Maliki, a longtime Shiite hard-liner whose Dawa party is backed by Iran, reverses a 2003 Bush administration decision to purge Baathists from the Iraqi military and government. It also appeared to be the first move in a new effort by al-Maliki and the U.S. administration to strengthen centrist political leaders, isolate Sunni and Shiite extremists and quell the fighting between Sunnis and Shiites.

Al-Maliki spoke at a reconciliation conference of Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish leaders after a Friday video conference with President Bush, and a White House spokesman immediately called his remarks encouraging.

No leaders of the main Shiite militias or Sunni insurgent groups attended the gathering, however, and none of the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders who did attend gave any indication that they intended to curb their own sects’ militias.

Al-Maliki made no mention of any move to curb the Shiite militias that are attacking Sunnis and have infiltrated the country’s police and security forces.

The Bush administration is considering whether to send as many as 40,000 additional U.S. troops to Iraq in an effort to help pacify the capital, curb the militias and train more Iraqi soldiers. The administration is contemplating other measures to support moderate political leaders and rebuild Iraq’s devastated economy.

In Iraq, however, politicians, residents and analysts are holding out little hope that either al-Maliki or Bush can reverse the country’s slide into civil war.

In interviews, Baghdad residents and intellectuals alike were melancholy about the months ahead, convinced that the ideas now being floated are too little and too late and resigned to the notion that no matter what anyone proposes, their country is doomed to chaos.

“There is no starting point. It is lost,” said an exasperated Hazim Abdel Hamid al-Nuaimi, a professor of politics at al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad. “What is needed is radical change. And even this, who is going to come to up with it? The so-called occupier? They don’t have the authority because this is sovereign Iraqi government. Things have gotten out of hand because people are only fighting for power and immediate gains.”

Virtually all of the proposals batted around in Washington and in Baghdad have either been tried before or aren’t enough to stop Iraq’s burgeoning violence.

For example, while disbanding Saddam’s military and the sweeping de-Baathification of the Iraqi government are now considered enormous blunders, previous efforts to recruit Sunnis back into the military and the government have accomplished little. Sunnis say they’re afraid to reveal that they once were members of the Baath Party, and many Sunnis who’ve signed up say that Shiites pushed them out again.

“This is the best the government can come up with,” al-Nuaimi said. “We need more.”

Al-Maliki’s nationally televised words landed with little fanfare in the capital, and even many of the 200 attendees at the reconciliation conference inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone said they didn’t think that their meeting would change what’s happening on the other side of the barricades.

“We are ready to support the government, but the problems will not end with this conference. The government must face the realities of the streets: Our people are being killed every day, and the American forces prevent us from fighting back against terrorists,” complained Raheem Abdeljarei al-Saadi, a Shiite sheik from a bloc of tribesmen who call themselves the Gathering for Democracy in Iraq. “For today, it’s like any other conference. We’ll talk, we’ll have a big luncheon, and then we’ll go.”

Rogue elements, such as rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, now dominate much of the capital; they’ve become stronger than the al-Maliki government; and neither adding more American troops nor training more Iraqi ones is likely to subdue them.

“The Multinational Corps’ ability to influence the political process has diminished further than ever before,” said James Denselow, an Iraq specialist at Chatham House, a London-based foreign policy consulting group. “They are beyond affecting it directly.”

U.S. commanders added 7,200 troops this autumn as part of a Baghdad security plan. The troops, along with their Iraqi counterparts, conducted house-by-house searches of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods.

But by the end of the plan, most agreed that the security situation in Baghdad had worsened. Militias and death squads continued to seize control of neighborhoods as soon as the troops left, and the U.S. lost more than 100 soldiers in October, making it the second-deadliest month for the forces since the war began.

Training more Iraqi troops is considered a more promising option, but U.S. and Iraqi officials agree that it would take time that Iraq may not have and patience that U.S. voters may not have, particularly as U.S. military deaths in Iraq approach 3,000. Moreover, while some Iraq forces are professional, others are proxies for Shiite militias, targeting and killing Sunnis while wearing government uniforms.

U.S. forces assigned to training the Iraqis say that such a shift wouldn’t improve conditions immediately.

“The Iraqi forces have a lot of potential, but it is going to be violent here for a while,” National Guardsman Lt. Col. Dennis Chapman 38, of Lansing, Mich. said this week in Suliminiyah, where he’s training the 4th Iraqi Army Division. It will require “institutional maturation.”

(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Hannah Allam and special correspondent Shatha al Awsy in Baghdad contributed to this report.)

(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-12-16-06 1725EST

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