U.S. sway in Iraq wanes as Maliki’s power grows

Times Staff Writer

Once dependent on American support to keep his job, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has consolidated power and is asserting his independence, sharply reducing Washington’s influence over the future of Iraq.

Iraq’s police and army now operate virtually on their own, and with Washington’s mandate from the United Nations to provide security here expiring in less than four months, Maliki is insisting on imposing severe limits on the long-term U.S. military role, including the withdrawal of American forces from all cities by June.

America’s eroded leverage has left Iran, with its burgeoning trade and political ties, in a better position to affect Iraqi government policies.


It also means that whichever U.S. presidential candidate is elected -- Republican John McCain, who insists on what some see as a vaguely defined American victory in Iraq, or Democrat Barack Obama, who has long called for a timeline for withdrawing U.S. combat troops -- will have less ability to sway Baghdad than did the Bush administration.

“If the next president waits too long, our diminishing leverage will likely disappear altogether, leaving us with two strategic options: resign ourselves to ‘ride the tiger’ -- that is, accept that we have to simply accept what the Iraqi government does and, at most, mitigate or help buffer the consequences -- or jump off the tiger altogether,” said Iraq expert Colin Kahl of the Center for a New American Security.

The Maliki government’s assertion of power has brought an end to the aggressive approach of the U.S. during its troop buildup last year. American forces frequently intervened in warfare between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. They even challenged Maliki’s Shiite-led government by striking alliances with former Sunni insurgents and arresting Shiite police and army commanders implicated in sectarian violence. Since enhancing his strength in a successful spring offensive against a rival Shiite militia, Maliki has insisted that all American troops leave by 2011, unless Iraq requests otherwise. Shiite officials give mixed signals on whether they would ask U.S. military advisors to stay.

During the summer, the prime minister shuttered a joint committee and demanded the U.S. military hand him jurisdiction over dealings with Sunni-dominated paramilitary units.

U.S. officials here acknowledge that their leverage is diminished. Active Iraqi army units came to outnumber U.S. troops in 2007 and started reporting back to Maliki directly through newly established regional command centers.

“They have more capability, so they don’t have to listen to us as much as they used to,” said a U.S. Embassy official who was not authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity.

“We always knew this time would come,” added the official, saying previous preparations to hand over power had been sabotaged by dysfunction in the Iraqi government.

The shift is largely rooted in Maliki’s military victory against the radical Mahdi Army militia in the southern port city of Basra and Baghdad’s Sadr City district. The offensive in Basra, launched against the recommendations of the U.S. military, reinvented the prime minister as a decisive commander in chief.

The turnaround came only months after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rescued Maliki from political oblivion. In December, Rice met with leaders from Iraq’s Kurdish bloc, the Shiite Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, which had sought the tacit blessing of the White House to vote him out of power. Instead, Rice told the leaders that Maliki continued to have Bush’s support, according to several Iraqi officials familiar with the meeting.

In March, Iran intervened on Maliki’s behalf. Iranian leaders convinced the head of the Mahdi Army, anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, to end his militia’s fighting in Basra after an Iraqi delegation traveled to Iran and met with senior Iranian officials and Sadr, according to a participant, lawmaker Ali Adeeb, a leader in Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party. A second trip to Tehran in May by Adeeb and others had a similar effect on Mahdi Army members fighting in Sadr City.

“Iran’s help is paying off even now,” Adeeb told The Times. “Sadr’s speeches and announcements are more moderate than they used be.”

In June, Maliki made his own visit to Tehran, a trip coinciding with a more hostile stance by the Iraqi government toward the Americans.

During that visit, Maliki’s office ordered government employees not to attend a twice-yearly conference scheduled to take place in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates, the same week. Iraqis had been expected to lead the majority of panels, but at least 15 Iraqi speakers skipped the event.

In August, Maliki shut down an Iraqi-American committee on basic services for security in Baghdad. “He terminated the group, saying there were too many Americans,” said a Western advisor to the Iraqi government.

With more than 146,000 troops still on the ground in Iraq, the U.S. retains a sort of military veto power over any efforts to oust them before the White House is ready. America’s ability to provide air power and help build an Iraqi air force also remain an enticing lure.

But Maliki and other Shiite leaders are juggling intense pressures, in part because of their close relationship with Iran. Maliki appears particularly leery of being branded an American puppet. This has been most prevalent in negotiations over the U.N. security agreement, meant to provide a legal mechanism for American troops to stay beyond this year.

“The prime minister has shown everyone he means business,” said lawmaker Sami Askari, a close advisor to Maliki. “Not everything America wants, America can get.”

The Iraqis are prepared to simply ask for an extension of the mandate of one year or less if Washington doesn’t agree to Iraq’s terms, said lawmaker Sheik Humam Hamoodi.

So far, the White House has balked at Iraq’s demands for an unconditional U.S. troop withdrawal date and for Iraqi courts to have some jurisdiction over U.S. soldiers.

Asked about the prime minister’s tilt, the U.S. Embassy official said Maliki was under pressure from Sadr and Iran.

“I don’t think he is anti-American per se,” the diplomat said. “I think he is trying to balance a variety of domestic and external pressures and he judges the American relationship from that context.”

Maliki has pressed demands that the Americans had previously rebuffed, notably over the U.S.-funded Sons of Iraq program, made up mainly of former Sunni insurgents. Though the program has received credit for the decrease in violence across Iraq, the Shiite-dominated government has resisted incorporating the force’s members into the police and vowed to prosecute some leaders for past criminal acts.

Last week, U.S. officials announced they would hand the Iraqi government control of the estimated 54,000 fighters in Baghdad at the beginning of October. The Americans had previously shielded prominent Sunni paramilitary leaders from arrest warrants based on doubts about the charges.

Asked whether such fighters could be guaranteed a fair trial, the American diplomat said, “No, but we are in a transition period.”

Some Iraqis are worried about America’s deference toward Maliki.

“Unfortunately, the American government is not an active player in the Iraqi affairs as they were before. They participated previously in successful projects like national reconciliation and establishing the Sons of Iraq, but now they are only acting as spectators,” said Salim Abdullah Jabouri, a spokesman for the Iraqi Accordance Front, the main Sunni bloc in parliament.

At the same time, Iraqi officials complain about the United States’ failure to create a lasting foundation beyond its military presence. Iran has created more than $2 billion in trade with its neighbor, including fuel and electricity exports.

“The Iranians will stay in this place forever till the Judgment Day and the Americans will withdraw,” said Sheik Jalaluddin Saghir, a senior Shiite politician. “The Americans built their status on their military and their political viewpoints. They didn’t try to find shared lines of interest or common ground. . . . The Iranians dealt with this matter in a more positive way.”