US raises pressure on Iraq's leader
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki must show greater political progress to satisfy Washington.
As Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki faces intense pressure to assert political control, the sectarian divides that have prevented rivals from challenging his leadership are also stymieing the progress that many Iraqis say is crucial if Mr. Maliki wants to keep his job.Skip to next paragraph
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The key to his survival may be whether Maliki – an official in Iraq's second-largest Shiite party before he emerged as prime minister in April 2006 – can change stripes and become a truly national leader who satisfies Washington's demands as well as those of a vocal Sunni political opposition and a war-weary public.
The coming weeks will be key: The US is pressing hard for results and Iraqis face a hot summer of perhaps the worst conditions in the post-Hussein era. Meanwhile, parliament shows few signs of moving on legislation deemed crucial for national reconciliation and quelling the insurgency.
To keep up pressure, Vice President Dick Cheney arrived in Baghdad Wednesday, meeting with Iraqi officials and US military commander Gen. David Petraeus. Mr. Cheney acknowledged difficulties on the ground but told Maliki that the months ahead demand "enormous effort" from both the US and Iraq.
Maliki's supporters say he's stronger than critics suggest and predict he will unveil a "new action plan" within days with broad-based support to reassert his leadership. Also, his recent high-profile meetings with leaders from other factions, like Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi on Tuesday, are moves in that direction, they say.
"In the coming days you will see a new plan, including new security measures, based on the government's extension of its dialogue to Iraqis outside power," says Ali Aladeeb, a member of parliament and a senior leader in Maliki's Dawa Party. That "reaching out to all groups" includes "serious negotiations with the insurgent groups," Mr. Aladeeb says.
A greater nationalist approach
Predictions of Maliki's fate vary widely. Few Iraqi political leaders foresee the kind of change that would allow for marked improvement on the ground in the next few months. And that, in turn, means they don't expect conditions to change significantly by September, which US leaders – political and military – increasingly pinpoint as the make-or-break review date for the US military surge.
"If Maliki does something different quickly to show he has initiatives, then he can stay in, but I'm not optimistic," says Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of parliament who supported Maliki's rise. "If he doesn't, this government has no more than three months, it can't survive more."
What shackles Maliki most is the fact that his government is more a balancing act of political parties than a cabinet serving a national agenda set by him.
The Iraqi people crave a strong national leader to take bold steps, Mr. Othman says, but Maliki may not fit the role since he was not chosen to be that kind of leader.
"If Maliki had initiatives the Iraqi people would support him, and there is a lot he could do on his own," says Othman. "But he lacks the charisma, he has a weak personality, so we have a government of political parties."
As the first post-Hussein government, Maliki's was always going to have trouble exercising authority, so expecting quick action may simply be unrealistic, some experts say.
"The problem is not Maliki, but a government that was not set up to work in a strong national interest," says Hameed Fadhil, deputy dean of the College of Political Science at Baghdad University. "It is not based on a nationalist view but on sectarian perspectives."
He cites as an example a proposed easing of de-Baathification measures to allow more of the former Baath Party members of Saddam Hussein's regime to return to state jobs and collect benefits.
"With the heritage of the previous regime, it's not possible to change the de-Baathification law, not in a year, not in five years," says Mr. Fadhil. "The parties that represent the victims and families of victims would not allow this."
Shiites worry about diluted power
Some Iraqi political movements are pressing for a more nationalist political approach, while others – the largest Shiite parties in particular – fear that direction means a dilution of their power.