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Maliki's Growing Defiance of US Worries Allies and Critics

Leila Fadel

BAGHDAD - Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has been on a roll, and American officials are getting worried.

Once perceived as a sectarian Shiite Muslim leader, the U.S.-backed
Maliki has won over Sunni constituents in recent months with offensives
to curb Shiite militias in southern cities such as Basra and Amara and
in the Baghdad Shiite slum of Sadr City.

then turned his security forces north to wrest control of Mosul and
Diyala province from Sunni extremists. U.S. forces provided strong
backing, and except for Basra and Sadr City, the operations were
announced in advance so that militants and insurgents had a chance to

however, U.S. officials in Baghdad worry that success has gone to
Maliki's head. They fear that his tough bargaining on a long-term
security agreement with the United States is a sign that Maliki thinks
he can move ahead on his own.

"There is no question that the
Iraqi security forces have come a very long way in the course of the
last 12 to 18 months. The growth in numbers and in capability has been
very significant," said a top U.S. military official in Iraq. "But the
'enablers,' if you will, the assets that the coalition provides, are
still very important and will be important for quite some time, and
have been decisive, even in operations in the past six months. So, as
always, caution is a wise approach." The official wouldn't be quoted by
name because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Last Monday,
Maliki dug in his heels publicly at a meeting with tribal sheikhs where
he insisted that a firm date for U.S. withdrawal is required in a
security agreement that has been under intense negotiations for weeks,
and he set the date as the end of 2011. The agreement would replace a
U.N. mandate set to expire at the end of this year.

His public
defiance rankled U.S. officials in Iraq and in Washington, who'd been
telling reporters that the security agreement was virtually complete
and glossing over the disputes about a timetable and about immunity for
U.S. troops who are accused of committing crimes in Iraq.

operation in Basra, which U.S. officials originally argued against, led
to Maliki's more assertive dealings with the Americans, one Iraqi
official said. The operation was a success, and Basra, once a Shiite
militia stronghold, came under central government control.

U.S. and British planes swooping in to save the Iraqi army, however,
the operation might have failed, U.S. officials in Iraq said, adding
that in recent weeks the situation in Basra has slid downhill again,
with a resurgence of assassinations in the city. The officials refused
to be quoted by name because their assessments are less optimistic than
the Bush administration's public ones are.

The Americans
"contributed to creating this overconfidence," said an Iraqi official
close to Maliki. "They kept telling him he can't do it, it's going to
be a disaster and you are going to have massive casualties and not
achieve anything in Basra. ... It achieved things that a much longer
British operation couldn't achieve." The official refused to be named
because he wasn't authorized to speak to reporters about the issue.

of Maliki's public statements may amount to political posturing to his
fractured political base in parliament, which needs to approve the
final security agreement.

Maliki's defiance, however, could also
be attributed to his unstinting support from the Bush administration.
Maliki and President Bush have weekly video conferences, and no matter
what Maliki does, he knows that U.S. support is there for him, the U.S.
officials said.

The Iraqi government is eager to take over the
Sons of Iraq program, a U.S. initiative that pays mostly Sunni former
insurgents to protect their neighborhoods. The Shiite-led government's
aim, however, isn't to absorb the mostly Sunni groups into the security
forces, but to disarm and in some cases detain the men.

"All of
these recent security operations had critical U.S. enablers, and he
wouldn't have been able to do it without them," said Sam Parker, who
deals with Iraq for the U.S. Institute for Peace, a
government-supported policy organization in Washington. "The dependency
relationship is there, which makes his dictating demands to us unusual.
... He doesn't think that the U.S. is willing to let Iraq fail. He
thinks that the U.S. really wants to keep U.S. troops there long term.
We never say, 'You need to do certain things for us to continue
supporting you.'"

Maliki realizes that his security forces still
need help, and he's pressing the U.S. administration to accelerate arms
sales and to bolster Iraq's fledgling air force.

"He is growing
and may feel he's achieved a lot on security and on reconciliation and
re-establishing the national unity government," an Iraqi official close
to Maliki said. "He's taking credit for this security improvement. ...
He believes he can afford to disagree with the Americans."

U.S. officials grumble that Maliki doesn't appreciate the training and
support that the United States has provided, and some Iraqi officials
also worry that the prime minister has let his recent successes
overpower the reality in Iraq.

"Maliki is pragmatic, he believes
Obama is the next president, and he believes Bush is dead," said Mithal
al Alusi, a secular legislator who frequently speaks to Maliki. "Maliki
feels himself the winner and no one can stop him."

presidential hopeful Barack Obama visited Iraq in July, Maliki threw
his support behind the senator's plan to withdraw all U.S. troops
within 16 months.

But there may be more to Maliki's public and
private defiance. The prime minister has to sell the final security
deal between the two nations to a divided parliament that has
difficulty agreeing on any major issues in Iraq. The fiery Shiite
cleric Muqtada al Sadr has also said that he'd completely disarm his
militia, now only partly disarmed, if there were a clear timetable for
an American withdrawal in the final agreement.

Maliki is now
demanding a firm timetable for withdrawal and jurisdiction over
American soldiers outside their bases. The second demand has stalled
the process and does not seem amenable to compromise.

For now,
Maliki has achieved none of his demands, said Ali al Adeeb, a leading
legislator in Maliki's party. The current wording in the agreement is
that U.S. soldiers will withdraw to their bases by June 30, 2009, and
leave by the summer of 2011 if conditions allow.

"What the Iraqis
want is a firm date, and with all the insistence and persistence on our
side, all we have is a firm date for restricting the American military
to their bases," he said. "There is no overconfidence or arrogance in
Maliki's insistence on his position. ... There is a clear indication
that the Iraqi forces are now capable of providing the security
services required. I think it's enough time, three years is more than
enough time."

McClatchy special correspondent Sahar Issa contributed to this report.


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