After Bush's Visit: Maliki on a Tightrope

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BROOKS KRAFT / CORBIS FOR TIME

President George W. Bush meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, June 13, 2006.

President Bush's lightning visit to Baghdad may have helped his political standing at home, but the same cannot be said for his “host,” Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. For the Iraqi leader — who was informed of Bush's presence in his country only five minutes before meeting him — the President's surprise trip may have been more of a nuisance than anything else. That's because Prime Minister Maliki's effort to achieve a national consensus that can turn Iraq around requires, among other things, that he distance himself, in Iraqi eyes, from the U.S. But the furor over reports that his government plans to offer an amnesty to insurgents who have killed Americans highlights the tightrope he must walk between his own political objectives and the interests of the U.S. — on which his security still depends.

It was reported Thursday that Maliki plans to offer an amnesty to insurgents, including those who have killed Americans — only those who have spilled any Iraqi blood would be excluded. But on Friday, the Maliki aide who had leaked that information was asked by the Prime Minister to resign. Still, the Washington Post reported, Adnan Ali al-Kadhimi stood by his account of amnesty considerations. "The prime minister himself has said that he is ready to give amnesty to the so-called resistance, provided they have not been involved in killing Iraqis," Kadhimi told the Post. And other government sources the paper spoke to did not contradict that.

The Prime Minister's approach is understandable, no matter how many feathers it ruffles on Capitol Hill. To have any chance at engaging the support of the Sunni community for a national unity government, Maliki knows he must offer the insurgency a political alternative to violence. Any amnesty, then, would have to apply to those who have attacked U.S. forces, because anything less would have no prospect of demobilizing the insurgents.

But the outrage in Congress at the idea that a U.S.-backed government was going to forgive those who have killed more than 2,500 American soldiers highlights the sensitivities facing Prime Minister Maliki: He needs to forge a new political compact with the Sunni nationalists who make up the bulk of the insurgency — as distinct from the minority aligned with al-Qaeda — while maintaining the support of the skeptical Shi'ite parties of his own coalition and avoiding making life difficult for the Bush administration.

The death of Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi last week allows both the government and the insurgent mainstream to adopt a new narrative in which sectarian bloodletting can be blamed on a foreign element that is being liquidated, leaving Iraqis to resolve their differences politically and forge a new consensus. In fact, Zarqawi's elimination — and claims that U.S. and Iraqi forces have followed up with a damaging crackdown on Qaeda cells around Baghdad — has coincided with Maliki's moves towards reconciliation with the Sunnis, including the release of some 2,500 prisoners suspected of aiding the insurgents and the naming of a former Baathist general as defense minister. Not surprisingly, that has prompted speculation that some in the insurgency may be discreetly cooperating in eliminating the Qaeda element; the two groups have little in common politically beyond a common hostility to the U.S., and tensions between them have long been evident.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has repeatedly emphasized the importance of drawing in nationalist Sunni insurgent groups to achieving a workable consensus in Iraq. The flip side of that equation, as Khalilzad has also made clear, is that the Shi'ite militias must be brought under government control. Maliki has signaled that he plans to achieve this by integrating the militias into the national security force. But the Sunnis, backed by the U.S., insist that existing militias must not simply be turned into units of the national security forces — their fighters must be dispersed across the existing security forces.

The focus on the militia issue will intensify now that government forces supported by U.S. troops are seeking to establish security control over the capital — an objective that would presumably require taking down both insurgent cells and Shi'ite militias.

Maliki may be inclined to seek a political agreement with the parties that control those militias before sending the security forces after them. Otherwise, he could precipitate a massive flare-up of violence and even a political crisis — the prime minister's political base, after all, is a coalition dominated by parties that maintain those same militias.

The national unity program being pursued by Maliki has plenty to make both the U.S. and the Shi'ite parties uncomfortable, and managing the political fallout will be a major challenge. He'll need to convince Iraqis, few of whom have a positive view of the U.S., that he's no protégé of Washington. And he'll need to depend on the Bush administration's reluctant recognition that no matter how distasteful to Americans, his national unity program is their last best hope in Iraq.