Global Policy Forum

US Struggles to Keep Iraqi Leader at Helm


Defections Strike Maliki's Coalition

By Farah Stockman

Boston Globe
August 21, 2007

US officials in Baghdad and Washington, under pressure to show political progress in Iraq to an increasingly skeptical Congress, are scrambling to shore up support for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose shaky coalition government has been on the verge of collapse since a rash of Cabinet defections earlier this month, analysts and government officials said yesterday.

At least three separate attempts to unseat Maliki are unfolding in Baghdad -- two from within his own Shi'ite coalition. Nearly half of the ministers in his Cabinet have resigned or are boycotting official meetings. The defections have so thinned the ranks of his supporters that some analysts say that Maliki might not be able to survive a vote of no confidence in the Iraqi parliament, if such a vote were called. "My view is that his government is in essential collapse," said Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East specialist at the Congressional Research Service, the research arm of Congress. In recent weeks, the US ambassador in Iraq, Ryan Crocker, and a top White House aide, Meghan O'Sullivan, have held a series of intense, behind-the-scenes meetings with Iraqi politicians. Their goal is to build enough support for Maliki to maintain control of a majority of seats in parliament and push through key pieces of legislation, including a law to regulate the sharing of oil profits and provisions to allow more Sunni Ba'athists to return to government service.

Those two laws are among the 18 benchmarks by which the US Congress will measure progress in Iraq. Bush administration officials in Baghdad and Washington warned yesterday that unseating Maliki -- which would usher in Iraq's fourth prime minister in five years -- would not help the country. "Everyone understands the limitations and is concerned, but when you do that rational, careful calculation, I don't know anyone who says that having someone other than Maliki would solve the problem," said one State Department official who closely follows the issue but is not authorized to be quoted by name. But others say Maliki is part of the problem. Viewed by many in Iraq and Washington as a Shi'ite sect loyalist, Maliki has been accused of unnecessarily antagonizing rival Sunnis, even refusing to meet with Sunnis serving in his own Cabinet.

Yesterday, the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, Carl Levin, who just finished a tour of Iraq, joined the list of critics who want Maliki out. In a conference call from Tel Aviv, the Michigan Democrat told reporters that Maliki "is not going to be able to make the compromises so essential to ending the violence." The political crisis in Iraq could not have come at a worse time for the Bush administration.

In less than a month, David Petraeus, the top American general in Iraq, and Crocker, the top diplomat, will present a much-anticipated joint report on whether the beefed-up US military presence, or "surge," in Iraq has stabilized the country enough to allow the Iraqi government to meet the 18 benchmarks. Both the White House and many in Congress have said the report will help chart the way forward in Iraq. As the deadline approaches, administration officials, including President Bush, have already begun highlighting what they say are positive developments in the security situation in Iraq, particularly a new alliance between US troops and Sunni tribes in Anbar that has brought security to the former insurgent stronghold. But even the administration's effort to accentuate the positive news in Anbar leads to doubts about Maliki, who has opposed the efforts in Anbar and considers the Sunnis there a military threat. In recent days, Maliki has made an effort to reach out to Sunnis, traveling to Saddam Hussein's home of Tikrit to meet with tribal leaders.

Nonetheless, analysts say support for Maliki is quickly deteriorating, accelerated by mass boycotts and defections that have left Maliki with just one Sunni in his 40-member Cabinet. Rather than reconciling with Sunnis, Maliki's government is "going backwards," said Juan Cole, a history professor at the University of Michigan. Sunnis, a minority sect that enjoyed political dominance under Hussein, a fellow tribesman, became the backbone of the insurgency after the US-led invasion in 2003. But US officials have pressured the majority Shi'ites and Kurds who form the majority in Iraq's parliament to share power with Sunnis to help end the fighting. So far, however, efforts to broker peace have been mired in lingering distrust and animosity. Sunnis accuse Maliki's government of ethnic cleansing in Baghdad, while Shi'ite politicians accuse Sunni leaders of being tied to the ruthless insurgency. Earlier this month, the six-member Sunni bloc in Maliki's Cabinet resigned. Days later, five members of a secular bloc that included Sunnis, led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi, began to boycott meetings, according to news reports. Their defections followed the resignations in April of five ministers loyal to radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Meanwhile, support for Maliki appears to be ebbing even among his Shi'ite political alliance. Some in the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, one of the most powerful Shi'ite political parties, want to replace Maliki with Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi, a Western-trained economist considered less sectarian. Within his Dawa Party, former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, whom Maliki replaced 15 months ago in a similar round of intense, behind-the-scenes negotiations, has begun to mount his own challenge. Allawi is the third challenger for the post. Under the Iraqi constitution, any 55 of the 275-member parliament can call for a vote of no confidence in the prime minister; if that happens, Maliki's opponents would need 138 votes to oust him. In recent days, Maliki has announced a new governing coalition, but analysts said it is still unclear whether it controls a firm majority in parliament. That has led some analysts to question the diplomatic efforts of Crocker and O'Sullivan. Meghan O'Sullivan has been there doing negotiations for several days, and all they can come up with is this tiny group" of parties to back Maliki, said Reidar Visser, a historian who edits the Iraq-focused website

Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department official who followed internal discussion about Maliki, said that Iraqi politicians appear to preparing for a "post-Maliki future," anticipating his downfall. The US has played a role in trying to assume the necessary support for Maliki," she said. "But those same sorts of dialogues and behind-the-scenes planning can easily transfer to 'Hey, the Maliki government appears to be hopelessly deadlocked and coming apart at the seams, so what next?' " Replacing Maliki, however, could simply lead to even more deadlock and delays in setting up a functioning government at a time with both Iraqis and Americans are losing patience. "There are major costs to getting rid of Maliki," Cole said.

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