A Surge Against Maliki

By David Ignatius (THE WASHINGTON POST, 09/01/08):

A new movement to oust Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is gathering force in Baghdad. And although the United States is counseling against this change of government, a senior U.S. official in the Iraqi capital says it's a moment of "breakthrough or breakdown" for Maliki's regime.

The new push against Maliki comes from Kurdish leaders, who, U.S. and Iraqi sources told me, sent him an ultimatum in late December. "The letter was clear in saying we are concerned about the direction of policies in Baghdad," said a senior Kurdish official. He described the Dec. 21 letter as "a sincere effort from the Kurdish parties to help the government reform -- or else."

The Kurds are upset that Maliki hasn't delivered on promises they say he made to them last summer, when he was trying to stave off an earlier attempted putsch. Maliki pledged then that his government would pass an oil law and a regional-powers law, and that it would conduct a referendum on the future of Kirkuk. None of these promises has been fulfilled, and the Kurds are angry.

The strongest anti-Maliki voice is Massoud Barzani, the dominant political leader in Kurdistan. Barzani agreed to back Maliki last summer after a personal telephone call from President Bush. Now, fuming about Turkish attacks across the border last month and the delay on Kirkuk, Barzani is on the warpath.

Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, met after Christmas in Kurdistan with Barzani and Jalal Talabani, the Iraqi president and the region's other ruling warlord. In a telephone interview yesterday from Baghdad, Crocker said his message to the Kurds was: "We think everyone should be placing emphasis on making the government more effective, not on changing the government."

Although U.S. officials are counseling against removing Maliki, they agree that the prime minister must govern more effectively and inclusively in coming months -- or suffer the "breakdown" described by the senior U.S. official. "Clearly there is a sense among the Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites that the government isn't doing what it's supposed to do," he explained. "It needs to get better quick."

The anti-Maliki forces would like to replace him with Adel Abdul Mahdi, one of Iraq's vice presidents and a leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, headed by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. Mahdi's supporters think they can muster the 138 votes needed for a no-confidence vote in parliament, by combining 53 votes from the Kurdish parties with 55 from Sunni groups and 30 from Hakim's Islamic Council. Add another 40 votes from supporters of former prime ministers Ayad Allawi and Ibrahim al-Jafari, and you're close to the two-thirds majority needed to form a new government.

The rumor mill in Baghdad is already floating the names of officials who would take cabinet posts in a new government. The Kurds are said to want key security portfolios, perhaps including control over intelligence through the Ministry of National Security. Various candidates have been proposed to take over the Energy Ministry -- and halt what is said to be massive smuggling of oil from the southern Iraqi pipeline across the border to Iran.

The biggest obstacle to removing Maliki is the Shiite religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who is said to be frustrated with Maliki's poor performance but wary of dividing the Shiite alliance. "Najaf [Sistani's headquarters] is unhappy," said one top Iraqi leader. But the senior U.S. official said he was "certain" that Sistani had not yet blessed any change of government.

Though Bush administration officials share the Iraqi frustration with Maliki, they fear that a change of regime would add delay and distrust to the already chaotic political scene in Baghdad. "How long would such a transition take? How long before they would form a new government?" worries a second senior U.S. official.

Rather than dumping Maliki, the administration hopes to work around him, by operating through a coalition known as the "three plus one." That group includes, in addition to Maliki, President Talabani and vice presidents Mahdi and Tariq al-Hashimi. "Our message to Maliki is that you can't govern solo. You have to govern as part of a group," says the second senior U.S. official. With a push from this governing alliance, Crocker hopes the Iraqi parliament will pass a law easing de-Baathification as early as the end of this week, and a budget by mid-January -- finally breaking the political logjam.

For an America caught up in its own political drama, the Baghdad primary seems remote. But what happens in Iraq during the next several weeks will shape events there for the rest of 2008. For Maliki, just back in Baghdad after a visit to London doctors for treatment for exhaustion, it's "make or break" time.