Iraq courts Democrats

Times Staff Writer

Representatives of Iraq’s government are hedging their bets on America’s political future, hoping to keep U.S. support for their country strong by building ties with a Democratic Party that now controls Congress and is closely scrutinizing President Bush’s Iraq policy.

“There’s a decision to be in contact, find out what they want, what their concerns are and to tell them of our concerns as well,” said Ali Adeeb, a Shiite lawmaker and close associate of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.

Republicans have dominated Iraq policy since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Many of the first U.S. officials in Iraq were handpicked party activists.

In one sense, the Nov. 7 election that handed Democrats control of Congress changed little, even though it was largely viewed as a repudiation of the White House’s Iraq policy. The State and Defense departments are still the primary instruments of policy in Iraq.

A top government official close to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who ended a brief visit to Iraq on Saturday, said the Bush administration remains the final arbiter of decisions on how much continued U.S. military and financial support the Iraqis receive.


But the election that changed the political dynamic in Washington also altered the rules of the game here. Iraqi leaders studied and discussed the possibility of a Democratic takeover for months before the vote. They concluded early that even the most staunchly antiwar Democrats would not abandon Iraq. In heated discussions, lawmakers reminded one another that it was Democratic President Clinton who signed the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, which funded the opposition movements now in power.

The Shiite Muslim leadership has informally recommended to ministerial and parliamentary delegations heading to Washington that they cultivate closer relationships with Democrats as well as Republicans.

“They have to see people from both sides, because they are both taking part in the administration of the country,” Adeeb said. “Whoever is a decision-maker in America, we have to have relations with.”

Many pointed out advantages to the Democrats’ increased sway over Iraq policy. Government officials said they had generally found the Democratic position on handing over security to Iraqi forces sooner rather than later closer to theirs. Almost all agree on Democratic Party initiatives, squashed when Republicans controlled Congress, to prevent the building of permanent U.S. bases here. They note news reports of Democrats acknowledging the suffering of the Iraqi population.

“I see that the Democratic ideas are more related to reality,” said Ammar Tuma, a lawmaker who serves in Maliki’s ruling Shiite coalition. “They talk about the real problems that the Iraqis are facing every day.”

To date, government officials said, they’ve also found Democratic visitors such as Pelosi, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois less parochial, more culturally sensitive and more willing to listen to Iraqi concerns than Republicans.

“Before, Bush used to order Iraqi officials to do this and that,” said one member of Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The Republicans were dictating the political process in Iraq. With the Democrats in control of Congress, the Republicans are now less influential than before. It helps us in a sense to breathe a bit more and to have more freedom.”

Many of the Shiites around Maliki still harbor bitterness about the Bush administration’s push to remove then-interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari from his post last year. They considered the pressure inappropriate interference in Iraq’s domestic affairs. They were also angered by recent remarks by Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice questioning whether Maliki was up to the job of leading Iraq.

The Republican Party’s election drubbing not only elevated Democrats, but also emboldened Maliki, who has begun criticizing the American president almost as much as Bush’s deputies criticized him.

“I understand and realize that inside the American administration there is some kind of a crisis situation, especially after the results of the last election,” he told reporters this month.

“It’s more balanced now,” said the Dawa Party member who asked not to be named. “What we’re seeing is Mr. Maliki criticizing Bush. You didn’t have that before.”

After weeks of icy relations and criticism, including a televised interview in which Bush faulted Maliki for the way the execution of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein was handled, the two men spoke Saturday by phone. It was the first time they had talked since Bush outlined his new Iraq policy. It was also the day Pelosi and a delegation of lawmakers wrapped up meetings with Iraqi officials.

“Now it’s different because [the Democrats] have some decision-making power,” said Farooq Abdullah, a Maliki advisor. “Before, we were meeting mostly with the Republicans because they were the ones in power. Now we’re meeting with both of them.”

Times staff writer Richard Serrano in Washington contributed to this report.