13 August 2014

Nouri al-Maliki: The History of America’s Frustrating and Unconstructive Ally in Iraq

For 2 U.S. Presidents, Iraqi Leader Proved a Source of Frustration

Peter Baker

New York Timies, 

August 12, 2014

WASHINGTON — One day in the fall of 2007, President George W. Bush joined Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki in a video conference to sign a “declaration of principles” on the future of the Iraqi-American relations. As Mr. Bush scrawled his name, Mr. Maliki in Baghdad just passed his pen over his copy, pretending to sign.

At the last minute, Mr. Maliki had decided not to sign because he said he had not read the document’s final wording, but he did not mention this to Mr. Bush, who had no idea his counterpart’s pen had not actually touched paper. An American official in the room noticed, however, and as soon as Mr. Bush’s image vanished from the screen, accosted a Maliki aide, saying, “Don’t screw with the president of the United States.”

The incident that day nearly seven years ago typified the vexing and volatile relationship between the Iraqi prime minister and his American sponsors. Events were often not what they seemed, nor did they work out as they were supposed to. Mr. Maliki rose from obscurity to power in part with American help, but first Mr. Bush and then President Obama found him to be a mercurial and often unconstructive ally who caused as many headaches as he solved.

Now as Mr. Maliki reaches a moment of truth, either stepping down or trying to preserve power, Mr. Obama and the American government are trying to maneuver the Iraqi leader one last time in hopes of replacing him with a more reliable figure who can pull that fractious country together and work more collaboratively with Washington.

For weeks, the president and his aides have said it was not their role to tell Iraqwho its leader should be, but they made eminently clear on Monday that it was time for Mr. Maliki to step aside in favor of Haider al-Abadi, a fellow member of the same Shiite party nominated by President Fuad Masum to be the next prime minister.

Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. each called Mr. Abadi to congratulate him, and when the president went before cameras on Martha’s Vineyard to repeat that publicly, he pointedly did not mention Mr. Maliki’s name. When a reporter asked if he had a message for Mr. Maliki, the president walked away. That was the message.

“He’s stubborn and he’s a fighter and he’s going to be resisting this,” said James F. Jeffrey, who watched both presidents deal with Mr. Maliki, first as Mr. Bush’s deputy national security adviser and then as Mr. Obama’s ambassador to Baghdad. “Everybody’s pulled his hair out with him.”

In the end, Mr. Jeffrey said, it will fall to the Americans or someone else to convince Mr. Maliki to go. “I think he will step down if he has to rather than have a coup,” Mr. Jeffrey said. “He’ll try everything under the sun to block it, including arresting people, but at some point someone has to talk with him.”

Mr. Maliki, a relatively little-known Shiite politician who spent much of Saddam Hussein’s reign outside of Iraq, was a surprise choice for prime minister in 2006 after months of deadlock. Mr. Bush was eager for the Iraqis to finally pick a prime minister who would be more decisive than Ibrahim al-Jaafari, and Mr. Bush’s ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, encouraged Mr. Maliki to run.

The Americans knew little about him. At first, they kept using the wrong first name for him — calling him Jowad, which was a nom de guerre — until Mr. Maliki himself corrected them.

Image CreditJacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

But Mr. Bush flew to Iraq to meet him and “sensed an inner toughness,” which was what he was looking for.

“You have to understand Jaafari to understand Maliki,” Mr. Jeffrey said. “With Jaafari, we couldn’t get him to make a decision at all. With Maliki, he was a better leader, at least at the beginning.”

It proved complicated, however. By that fall, Americans were frustrated with Mr. Maliki, who resisted reining in Shiite militias. Stephen J. Hadley, the president’s national security adviser, told Mr. Bush in a classified memo, which was leaked, that Mr. Maliki was either “ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions” or incapable of taking action.

Eventually, Mr. Bush doubled down on Mr. Maliki anyway with a risky troop surge and made a point of holding weekly video conferences with him in an effort to mentor him in the art of coalition politics.

But the fake-signing episode underscored American frustrations. Even though Mr. Maliki later signed the agreement for real, when Iraqi foes plotted to push him out, some in the White House agreed that he should go, including Brett McGurk, the official who had confronted the Maliki aide about the fake signing, and who now works for Mr. Obama.

Mr. Bush rejected the idea but sent Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Baghdad to tell Mr. Maliki to shape up. “You’re a terrible prime minister,” she told Mr. Maliki. “Without progress and without an agreement, you’ll be on your own, hanging from a lamppost.”

Mr. Maliki remained impulsive. He ordered a hasty, haphazard military operation against Shiite militias in Basra that was very nearly a disaster but succeeded with last-minute American help. Mr. Maliki, observed Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, “went from being docile to being John Wayne.”

When Mr. Obama came into office, the relationship changed again. He thought Mr. Bush was too directly involved and did not continue the weekly conversations with Mr. Maliki. Instead, he left it to Mr. Biden to manage the prime minister.

Mr. Biden concluded that major moves, like passing a law on oil revenue sharing, “couldn’t come in one fell swoop,” said a senior administration official, who insisted on anonymity to discuss diplomacy. “So there was more focus on incremental, doable steps that he could take. And we had some success in that, more on some issues than others.”

But in the vice president’s phone calls with Mr. Maliki, the official said, “what always shone through was that he suffers from the same malady that so many regional leaders suffer from — the inability to conceive of how to share power with other key groups and constituencies.”

That worsened after Mr. Obama and Mr. Maliki could not reach a liability agreement that would allow a residual American force to stay at the end of 2011 when American troops departed. Within days, Mr. Maliki arrested a Sunni vice president, foreshadowing a more sectarian strategy.

Without the influence and the security of American troops, Mr. Maliki lashed out to consolidate power. “We lost that leverage,” said David Kilcullen, who was an adviser to Gen. David H. Petraeus in Iraq. “At that point, his natural sectarian tendencies really came to the fore.”

With another election deadlock in 2010, Mr. Maliki outmaneuvered a rival to win another term with the perceived support of Americans eager to maintain stability. United States officials denied supporting Mr. Maliki, saying his rival simply could not forge a coalition.

Either way, Mr. Maliki grew more sectarian, and the relationship soured further. He blocked American efforts to send military advisers after troops left, but then as Islamic extremists spilled over the border from Syria grew frustrated that requests for help from Washington were not met. He felt abandoned, officials said.

Even after Mr. Obama sent advisers and surveillance planes, Mr. Maliki resisted Washington’s advice. American officials warned against trying to retake Tikrit from the Sunni insurgents, but he ignored them.

Now Mr. Obama is moving on. Mr. Biden called Mr. Masum, the Iraqi president who nominated Mr. Abadi, to buck him up “to hold firm in the face of pressure” from Mr. Maliki, according to the senior official. Mr. Biden came away impressed with Mr. Abadi, finding him “very different from Maliki,” the official said, “pragmatic and cool headed.”

Mr. Jeffrey said Mr. Maliki had been a “relatively effective leader” but not good at “managing up” and working with American supporters. “Both presidents, even President Bush, often wondered when is this going to end, when is this nightmare going to end,” he said. “You’re always going to be disappointed by whoever the political leaders are.”

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