Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and Tariq Hashimi, the country’s Sunni vice president, faced each other across the room as the latter spoke angrily of the bad blood between Sunni and Shiite officials.
A hush fell over the room as Hashimi demanded to know whether the prime minister had been accusing his political bloc of being infiltrated by terrorists.
“Are you talking about us? If you are ... we would ask for proof,” said Hashimi, according to his account of a recent closed-door meeting of Iraq’s top political and national security officials. “I am treated as an opponent,” he said, his voice rising. “If you continue treating me like this, it is better for me to quit.”
Maliki sat in silence.
Iraq’s government is teetering on the edge. Maliki’s Cabinet is filled with officials who are deeply estranged from one another and more loyal to their parties than to the government as a whole. Some are jostling to unseat the prime minister. Few, if any, have accepted the basic premise of a government whose power is shared among each of Iraq’s warring sects and ethnic groups.
Maliki is the man U.S. officials are counting on to bring Iraq’s civil war under control, yet he seems unable to break the government’s deadlock.
Even Maliki’s top political advisor, Sadiq Rikabi, says he doubts the prime minister will be able to win passage of key legislation ardently sought by U.S. officials, including a law governing the oil industry and one that would allow more Sunni Arabs to gain government jobs.
“We hope to achieve some of them, but solving the Iraqi problems and resolving the different challenges in the [next] three months would need a miracle,” Rikabi said.
Interviews with a broad range of Iraqi and Western officials paint a portrait of Maliki as an increasingly isolated and ineffectual figure, lacking in confidence and unable to trust people.
Iraq’s intractable problems would challenge even the most skilled of politicians. But skilled politicians are in short supply here. Most of Iraq’s current leaders grew to adulthood as members of underground militias, skilled in the arts of conspiracy, not compromise. And many of those leaders appear to believe that their side can still win a decisive military victory in the country’s civil war.
Maliki, 57, shares that background and world view. A longtime Shiite Muslim leader, he fled to Iran soon after Saddam Hussein took power and spent the subsequent years in exile in Iran and Syria, plotting Hussein’s overthrow. He was never expected to become prime minister and emerged as a compromise candidate after his Islamic Dawa Party’s first two choices were rejected by the Americans and the Kurds.
Nonetheless, he took office amid hopes that he could succeed where others had not.
“Maliki had an amazing opportunity,” said a senior Iraqi politician, speaking on condition of anonymity because he still does business regularly with the prime minister. “He had amazing support from Bush. Amazing support even from the regional countries, the Arabs -- even Saudi Arabia at the start.”
“He did not seek the right tactics. The guys around him did not enable him to do his job. All of these guys around him were small-minded and sectarian.”
Now, fellow Iraqi officials describe the prime minister as dangerously out of touch. They accuse him of insulating himself with a tightknit group of advisors from his party and of shutting others out of decision making. Rikabi, Maliki’s political advisor, denied that allegation.
Parliament recently humiliated the prime minister by twice refusing to approve his nominations for six Cabinet positions left vacant for nearly two months. A Western diplomat in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity because he deals with the government, said Maliki had alienated would-be partners.
“Maliki is to blame for that because he has surrounded himself with his Dawa colleagues in his prime minister’s office,” the diplomat said. “It is a very big problem and doesn’t promote trust.
“He isn’t a natural leader. You either have it or you don’t.”
Kurdish leaders in Baghdad, who were once strong allies, have become irritated by Maliki’s behavior, said Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman. “They complain about him. They say he does all these things without telling us.”
The most problematic relationship in the government remains the one between Maliki and Hashimi. Their failure to find a way of sharing power feeds into the violent struggle between Sunnis and Shiites on the street.
Some of Maliki’s advisors consider Hashimi’s faction, which holds 44 seats in the Iraqi parliament, a front for terrorists. A few of its members have been linked to violence in Baghdad and have had their homes raided and their bodyguards detained.
“They really work inside and outside the political process to end it [the government], to return back to the past. That is the real problem,” Rikabi said. “Many of the [Sunni Muslim political] participants are accused of supporting terrorism or terrorist actions. The Americans troops have all the data on this.”
For his part, Hashimi says Maliki has not reached out to him. He describes his experience in government as one slight after another from the prime minister.
“Within the first month, I don’t recall how many messages I passed to him, trying to encourage him, trying to propose something for the government’s benefit,” Hashimi said. “He just exclusively ignored all of these messages. He didn’t reply. He didn’t reply to anything.”
Last year, he says, he sent Maliki 30 messages that went unanswered.
A breaking point came in February when Maliki fired the head of the Sunni Waqf, or religious endowment, that maintains Baghdad’s Sunni mosques. He acted without informing Hashimi after the endowment chief criticized the government.
Hashimi learned of the firing on the television news. “This is unacceptable,” he said. “This is humiliating me in front of my constituency: the Sunni people.”
By early May, Hashimi and Maliki had gone a month without speaking to each other. The vice president threatened to withdraw the Sunni bloc from the government. Maliki then called him in for a meeting. Both sides pledged greater cooperation, but Hashimi says nothing has changed.
Mindful of the tensions, Maliki reconciled last month with the ex-head of the Sunni Waqf. But Hashimi’s main demand is for a greater role in the Defense Ministry. Sunnis believe that the ministry and the rest of Iraq’s security apparatus are dominated by Shiite parties.
The Sunni leader said his group was now exploring alliances to unseat the government, asserting it was making progress toward forging a new coalition.
“We are not far away myself from the Kurds and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council,” he said, referring to the largest party in Iraq’s Shiite bloc. “We more or less have a joint consensus that things have to be changed.”
In theory, a new alliance could give the Shiite and Sunni blocs a chance to shed their most extreme elements, allowing the government to function.
But many here doubt that scenario is workable. “What is going to be so different about an alliance or government they put together that is going to be able to achieve where Maliki failed?” the Western diplomat asked. “The alliances people talk about are shifting one party here and one party there. It’s going to be the same old faces.”
Already, the country is turning into power cliques beneath the radar of the government, warned the senior Iraqi politician who still works with Maliki.
“One of the dangers we have is out of this chaos, an oligarchy is evolving, little fiefdoms manipulating money, smuggling oil, getting into contracting procedures.
“Look at Basra,” he said, referring to the oil-rich city in southern Iraq where Shiite tribes, militias and parties are fighting one another for power.
Iraq “could also move into an era of impasse,” he said. “No one will be able to take the government out or put in a better alternative. That is my personal worry.”
Times staff writer Tina Susman contributed to this report.
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Born: In a village near Karbala in southern Iraq in 1950.
Career: Joined the Islamic Dawa Party, a leading Shiite faction, in 1968. Fled the country in 1980 after Saddam Hussein outlawed Dawa. Joined other party activists in Iran and Syria, where he participated in plots aimed at overthrowing Hussein and served as chief editor of the party’s newspaper.
After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, became a leading Shiite political figure. As a leading Shiite negotiator, he helped draft Iraq’s constitution in 2005 and served on the committee that devised rules for purging former Baath Party members from government.
Became prime minister in April 2006, replacing another Dawa leader, Ibrahim Jafari.
Family: Three daughters and two sons.
Source: Times research
Born: In Baghdad in 1942.
Career: Grandson of a former general in the Ottoman Army, he attended military academy from 1959 to 1962 and became an officer. Left the military in 1975 when he refused to join the Baath Party.
Worked as an officer of a Kuwaiti-based shipping company, then returned to Iraq after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990.
In 2004, became leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni group that participates in the Iraqi government.
Sworn in as Iraq’s vice president in April 2006.
Personal: Shortly after he took office, his brother Mahmoud was killed in a drive-by shooting. His sister Maysoon was slain along with her bodyguard later that month. A second brother, Amer, was killed in October; Sunni leaders accused Interior Ministry forces of involvement.
Source: Times research