Al-Maliki Comes to Washington Flexing His Muscle

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Callie Shell / Aurora for Time

U.S. President Barack Obama talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki after a meeting at a military base in Baghdad

During his first visit to Washington, in 2006, some U.S. lawmakers tried to prescribe how Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki should respond to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon under way at the time. A group of Congressmen sought to strong-arm him into denouncing Hizballah, but instead al-Maliki stuck firm to his condemnation of "Israeli aggression." He may have had to rely on the U.S. military for his security, but Iraq's new Prime Minister was not about to accept U.S. tutelage on regional politics. And in the intervening years, he has proved so adept at managing the balance of power among the various stakeholders in his country that he returned to Washington on July 22 as the Iraqi leader who has politely but firmly shown the U.S. the door. During a White House press conference with President Obama, both men stressed the progress that has been made in Iraq. Despite the inevitability of "touch days ahead," President Obama stressed that things were on track for a withdrawal of U.S. combat troops by next August.

During the final year of the Bush Administration, al-Maliki effectively drew up the plan for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq that the Bush Administration had been so reluctant to contemplate. He pushed back against every U.S. draft of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which governs the terms by which U.S. troops would stay in Iraq beyond Jan. 1, 2009, until he got his way: the agreement requires that all U.S. troops leave Iraq by the end of 2011, and it compelled them to redeploy out of Iraq's cities by the beginning of this month.

Initially, U.S. military sources greeted the agreement with nod-and-wink reassurances that they would continue to patrol cities where they deemed it necessary. Instead, U.S. commanders have reportedly found the rules as set by the Iraqi side far more restrictive than they had anticipated. Iraqi officials claim that a number of American requests to move troops through Baghdad without an escort by Iraqi forces have been turned down, and Iraqi officials say the Americans billeted on the periphery of Baghdad have been asked to stay put unless called into action by the Iraqis.

In the showdown over the SOFA, it seems, al-Maliki did not blink and nor did he wink.

None of this should necessarily trouble President Barack Obama, of course — al-Maliki's firm hand has been a godsend for the President's campaign promise of withdrawing from Iraq within 18 months of entering the White House. Obama faces none of last year's debate about whether the timetable for U.S. withdrawal should be decided by politicians in Washington or by U.S. commanders on the ground; it has been set by Iraqis themselves. And the extent to which the Iraqi government is now taking ownership of its own security certainly helps Obama make his case for shifting resources and focus to Afghanistan.

The security situation in Iraq may be as good as it has been since 2006, but still it remains fragile. And the key factor driving political violence in Iraq — conflict over the post-Saddam distribution of power among different groups of Iraqis — remains unresolved, keeping the danger of further security reversals ever present. Tensions are rising sharply in the north, for example, where the Kurds are looking to extend their autonomous region to fold in the key city of Kirkuk, and the government in Baghdad is pushing back. But when Vice President Joe Biden recently visited Baghdad and offered Washington's help to mediate Iraq's ongoing sectarian and ethnic political conflicts, al-Maliki essentially told him to butt out of Iraq's domestic affairs.

The reconciliation theme may figure prominently in Obama's discussions with al-Maliki on Wednesday, but there's little reason to expect the Iraqi Prime Minister to be any more heedful of the advice of the new U.S. Administration than he was to implement the national reconciliation benchmarks set by President Bush. Most of those remain unfulfilled, and al-Maliki has further escalated tensions by failing to integrate the "Awakening" militias of former Sunni insurgents brought on the U.S. payroll — a key component of the success of the U.S. surge strategy in tamping down violence. Al-Maliki's government made no secret of its hostility to many of the Awakening commanders, which it identified as former Baathists, and a number have been arrested in recent months.

As he prepares for a key election at the end of this year, al-Maliki is projecting himself as Iraq's new strongman. Having aligned himself with the smashing of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and cashing in on the success of the U.S. Awakening strategy against al-Qaeda, he claims credit both for taming Iraq's chaos and for forcing the Americans to agree to leave — a longstanding demand of the majority of Iraqis. Put into power by a sectarian Shi'ite coalition, he has lately projected himself as the champion of a new Iraqi nationalism that transcends ethnicity and sect, and finds himself at odds with some of his erstwhile Shi'ite and Kurdish allies. Of course, al-Maliki's critics scoff at his claims to have transcended sectarianism, and much of his security success is based on the efforts of the Americans he is working to eject. But if that seems contradictory, it's simply a reflection of al-Maliki's political strategy, which is all about parlaying the balance of forces between the major players in Iraq to his own advantage.

The drab Dawa party leader was certainly an unlikely strongman, arguably chosen as Prime Minister only as a compromise figure between factions far stronger than his own limited base. His Dawa party was very much the junior partner of the Shi'ite United Iraqi Alliance coalition, but he was helped into the top job by al-Sadr, who saw him as a foil to their mutual rival, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council. Of course, that didn't stop al-Maliki from turning on al-Sadr later, defanging his militia with the help of the Americans and Iran. And as dependent as he may have been on the U.S. military, he declined to implement the political strategy the Bush Administration developed for Iraq — and relied on Iranian influence among Iraqi lawmakers to keep him in power when Washington pressed for his ouster in 2007. But while Iran's influence is such that al-Maliki is unlikely to directly cross Tehran, he's hardly a shill for Iran's mullahs.

Al-Maliki is very much a product of the fact that while some of the forces ranged against each other in Iraq are far stronger than al-Maliki's own, none is in a position to impose its will on the others. And he has worked that impasse to boost his influence. Once, when al-Maliki came to Washington, it was simply assumed that he was an actor in an American game. Today he's more likely to view Obama as a key player in his own game.