CAIRO — Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wouldn't appear to have much in common with President Bush at first blush. The garrulous Texan is a promoter of secular democracy who was born into a prominent political family. Mr. Maliki is a stern, former Shiite militant who favors a role for Islamic law in the Iraqi state and spent 23 years in exile in Iran and Syria.
But as the two leaders meet in Jordan for a two-day summit on quelling the war in Iraq, they share a problem that may prevent bold moves: With Iraq looking as unstable as it has since the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein, both face a backlash from constituents at home.
Mr. Maliki, who has been on the job for seven months, is under increasing attack from average Iraqis – angry over the daily sectarian carnage and deterioration in basic services – and Shiite power brokers, especially, the militant cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose political support for Maliki helped swing the premiership in his favor.
The poor situation in Iraq is pushing both men to reach beyond their cabinets and national borders for solutions, as their meeting today symbolizes. The two men will also meet with Jordan's King Abdullah, as they reach out to regional powers. Indeed, some in the US welcome the new Bush approach of turning to a broader range of advisers.
But whether King Abdullah, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinajad – whom Iraqi President Jalal Talabani visited Monday for help with stabilizing Iraq – or the Iraq Study Group (ISG) led by former Secretary of State James Baker (expected to announce new ideas for pacifying Iraq in the coming weeks), will be able to find a path leading away from civil war is far from certain.
"You've created an elephant [the ISG] to give birth to a mouse,'' says Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He says that the ISG recommendations are more likely to produce small changes in the US policy toward Iraq than sweeping new approaches.
Mr. Cordesman approves of talking to neighbors of Iraq, including Iran, because that's in the long-term interests of the US. But he is pessimistic about the possibility of short-term improvements.
"The whole idea that dialogue is somehow going to produce miracles is an extraordinarily dangerous illusion,'' he says by phone. "There are serious problems in every area, and we don't have the quality of the dialogue inside the country that's needed to bring factions to reconciliation."
Indeed, reconciliation in Iraq now appears to most observers as a receding possibility. Lawmakers from the minority Sunni faction have threatened to pull out of the government because of the continued death squad activity in Baghdad, which they blame on militias loyal to some of the main Shiite parties. Even the factions of the Shiite parties, who represent the largest of Iraq's sectarian groups, are showing the strain.
Deputies of Mr. Sadr have threatened to pull out of the government if Maliki meets with Bush. They are angry at joint US and Iraqi efforts to dismantle their militia, which dominates the sprawling Sadr City slum in northeast Baghdad, and at allegations that they were behind the abduction of an Iraqi-American US soldier earlier this month.
Just as he ignored similar Sadr threats prior to a visit to Washington in July, Maliki is going to meet with Bush anyway. And it seems unlikely that Sadr's supporters will bring Maliki's government down. But Sadr's followers are effectively sending a message that their continued support for the government is contingent on leaving the Mahdi Army, Sadr's militia, alone.
It's clear now, too, that Maliki hasn't been able to do much better than his predecessor. When Maliki replaced outgoing Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari earlier this year, US officials hailed his appointment. They acknowledged he was from the same Dawa Party (Dawa roughly translates as "Islamic Call"), but predicted he would be a take charge leader who would quickly disarm the sectarian militias who kill dozens of Iraqis every day.
"He's told us that he's serious about disarming militias, and we're confident that he will do exactly that,'' a senior US official in Baghdad said at the time of his appointment.
But in the seven months since, Iraq's militias have continued to proliferate and grown more brazen. US officers and Sunni officials say members of the Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias have been packed into the police forces, and that many of the sectarian attacks in Baghdad appear to be carried out by moonlighting police officers. On Monday, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley told reporters traveling with Bush in Latvia that the president will tell Maliki that "things are not proceeding ... fast enough,'' in terms of disarming militias.
What Maliki can realistically do at this point is uncertain. The worst single terrorist attack since 2003 hit Sadr City at the end of last week. A string of suicide bombs killed more than 200 people, generating not only anger but support for Sadr's Mahdi Army, which many residents of the area say will do a better job of protecting them than the government.
"Nothing can be done to [Sadr's] death squad central in Baghdad because Maliki owes his job to him,'' says Wayne White, former head of the Middle East desk for the State Department's bureau of Intelligence and Research and now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington. "Maliki is surrounded by infuriated Shiites who, even before the Golden Mosque bombing in Samarra, were being plastered by Sunni Islamists and Al Qaeda types."
The destruction of the revered Shiite shrine by suspected Sunni militants last February touched off the worst round of reprisal killings by Shiite militias of the war. Mr. White says there is still some hope that the Iraqi Army can get on course, he says, but "the police are broken, they're smashed on the floor. How you fix that escapes me."
Maliki's chances of serving his full five-year term are looking increasingly tenuous as Iraq's mounting problems are blamed on his government. After visiting Sadr City Sunday in a memorial for the victims, his motorcade was pelted with stones by angry residents, who complained both of the burgeoning bloodshed and the government's failure to restore electricity or basic infrastructure.