In an implicit criticism of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's reluctance to ask for help from the US following the June 30 pullback of combat troops, Dr. Abdul Mahdi called for a re-assesment of the role of US forces here that could result in more involvement for American troops sidelined by what he termed an over-optimistic view of security in Iraq.
"This should be reassessed once again - whether it was too early, whether it was adequate this should be assessed," he said on Sunday when asked whether the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraqi cities has weakened security.
Abdul Mahdi said he was not suggesting renegotiating the Status of Forces Agreement which calls for a gradual withdrawal of US troops. He said the goal would be 'how to use the troops already there, to (not) neglect them, to make them functional in the way they should help Iraq, assist Iraq. There was a policy to put them completely aside. Whether that was mature or premature one should reassess and study and I think if it is reassessed we will find many weak points there."
Abdul Mahdi, whose Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) has formed a new coalition that is expected to challenge Mr. Maliki in the next election, called for an investigation into why senior security officials waited three hours to ask for US help after the bombing of the foreign and finance ministries. "Three hours after the bombing asking Americans to come to the scene should be studied," he said.
The Aug. 19 truck bombings killed more than 90 people and wounded more than 600 others in what was widely seen as a systemic security failure. Some officials believe that asking for US assistance sooner would have helped in rescue efforts and the gathering of forensic evidence that could lead to the killers.
"We were always arguing that we still have a security problem, while others were arguing we were finished with that," said Abdul Mahdi, who is expected to be his coalition's candidate for prime minister. "Minimizing their importance was a big mistake, and advocating that 'everything is now well' was a false message given to the people."
Rivals and security
Maliki has in recent months been building a case for reelection founded partly on claims that the worst of Iraq's war is over. As US combat forces withdrew from the city, his government ordered the removal of some checkpoints and blast walls around Baghdad. Now, Abdul Mahdi says, Iraq needs to decide how the remaining US forces here can best be used [Editor's note: The original misstated points about the removal of protective walls in Baghdad.].
US Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Iraq on Tuesday, and Abdul Mahdi said ahead of the visit that he welcomed any efforts from Mr. Biden to ease Arab-Kurdish tensions, including over the disputed city of Kirkuk.
Mr. Biden is expected to travel to Iraqi Kurdistan to meet with Kurdish leaders this week.
A raging debate among Iraqi politicians is over how much influence the US should continue to exert on policy matters. Biden's last visit here sparked tension when he privately told senior Iraqi officials that the US was losing patience with Iraq's failure to follow through on key policies.
In addition to areas claimed by both Kurds and Arabs, issues such as an oil law and a new election law have been stalled by political wrangling.
Talk to Iran
Abdul Mahdi, whose party was founded by Iraqi exiles in Iran in the 1980s as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said he believes that dialogue between the United States and Iran would lessen Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs, including the flow of fighters and weapons across the border – something that has recently lessened but is still of concern to Iraqi and US officials.
"Of course – I think the whole environment will be better… better relations, a dialogue, between the US and Iran will be very useful to Iraq – otherwise we will see interference from both sides," he said.
Iraq is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections in January and US officials say a relatively peaceful vote with more participation by Sunni parties than in the 2005 elections is crucial to building the stability Iraq needs for US forces to continue to withdraw.
Last month, SIIC and supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr, members of the Shiite-led coalition that brought Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to power, announced a new alliance that excluded Maliki and his Dawa party – the other main Shiite player.
Abdul Mahdi says his coalition is still holding the door open for Maliki if he wants to join them and is working toward a wider alliance, including talks with Ayad Allawi, the former US-installed interim prime minister, and other secular figures.
Abdul Mahdi, a French-educated economist, says a reported demand from Maliki that he lead the alliance by controlling 51 percent of the slate's candidates was "unacceptable."
"Maliki will have his chance, others will have their chances, so joining the coalition with balanced rates would be the acceptable equation – otherwise what is the point of having a coalition?" he asked.
He said that, despite Iraq's security setbacks and political turmoil, which include the arrest of one of his guards on robbery and murder charges and a public spat with the Interior minister, there should be no serious concern that the country is falling apart.
"Iraq will hold together," he says. "We're seeing real momentum in Iraq, which is really tremendous. It is like a volcano … more and more people are joining the political process, even with all the difficulties we have, and this is amazing."
How is the culture of public criticism of government developing in Iraq's neighbors ?
For full transcript, see Interview: Iraqi VP Adel Abdul Mahdi