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

The prime minister is asserting himself -- and listening more to what Iran has to say.

September 16, 2008|Ned Parker | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — 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.

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