Bush and Maliki Put on a Show of Unity

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U.S. President George W. Bush shakes hands with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki following a joint press conference in Amman, Jordan.

The postponement of the first session of a high-stakes summit between President Bush and Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki Wednesday night in Jordan may indeed have been — as officials on both sides took pains to stress — simply a matter of logistics. And the two men appeared relaxed after their meeting, stressing common themes such as a rejection of the idea of partitioning Iraq, and stressing the need for Iraqi forces to take on more of the security burden. Still, reports ahead of the summit on the outlook that each man would bring to the table suggests a substantial degree of tension between the two sides, both of them under mounting political pressure at home.

The meeting was touted as a crisis summit designed to set a new course for tackling Iraq's mounting violence, civil war or whatever one chooses to call it; the salient point is that Iraq has spun so dangerously out of control that existing policies appear to offer no way out of the mayhem. The pre-meeting atmosphere was clouded by the publication, in the New York Times, of a memo from National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley that questions Maliki's commitment and capability to take the steps the U.S. deems necessary to turn things around. The document sets out a U.S. prescription for Maliki's government that may be no more realistic than the optimistic projections with which the Administration went into the war. Support for Maliki, the document suggests, should be based on his willingness to remake himself politically along lines preferred by the Administration, specifically by jettisoning much of his Shi'ite support base and governing instead at the head of a new coalition with strong Sunni and secular representation — all of which the U.S. would help orchestrate.

The idea of detaching Maliki from his own political base already seemed more than a little implausible. And as he left Baghdad for the meeting, Maliki's key coalition partner, the parliamentary bloc headed by the radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada Sadr, announced that it would suspend participation in the government, potentially leaving the Prime Minister's parliamentary majority in doubt. Last weekend, Sadr had warned that he would withdraw support for Maliki if the Prime Minister took the meeting with Bush in Jordan. But while Sadr appears to have told Maliki to choose him or choose the U.S., the Hadley document appeared to make the same case in reverse — Maliki would have to ditch Moqtada and, potentially, much of the Shi'ite political leadership, or lose the support of the U.S.

How Maliki plans to navigate the mutually-exclusive demands of the Sadrist political bloc that keeps him in power and the U.S. whose military keeps him alive remains to be seen. But the odds are stacked against the Iraqi Prime Minister following the script outlined in the Hadley memo, and there are already indications that he isn't about to cave into Washington's demands. Indeed, it was reported Wednesday that Maliki would make his own demands of President Bush at the meeting, most notably pressing for the U.S. to transfer command of the Iraqi security forces into the hands of the Iraqi government, and also for discussions with Iran and Syria over the situation in Iraq to be handled by the Iraqi government. And President Bush said after the talks that Maliki had expressed frustration over the lack of authority his government has over its security forces.

Sadr's group, meanwhile, couched its response as a suspension of participation in — rather than a withdrawal from — the government, allowing for it to return to the fold in exchange for concessions. And despite Washington's chagrin, Maliki will likely seek to restore the Sadrists to his coalition rather than face the collapse of his government. But the reason Washington wants Sadr out is that his group is widely viewed as a key source of sectarian violence. So as long as Maliki is looking over his shoulder in Sadr's direction rather than in Bush's, the prospects for his government enacting a national reconciliation plan that could reverse the trend towards civil war remain grim.

—With reporting by Aparisim Ghosh/Baghdad