Baghdad was already feeling the heat of an increase in suicide blasts and roadside bombs, mortar attacks on the Green Zone, and U.S. pressure to meet its "benchmarks" of progress by September. Amid all this, rumors abound in Baghdad of coup plots, which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has fueled by accusing political rivals—aides say he means former P.M. Ayad Allawi—of "conspiring" against the government with the help of "foreign intelligence." (Allawi has denied any connection to a coup plot.) Few in Maliki's government see more of the internal challenges that the prime minister faces than Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd who has managed to retain his post since being appointed to the interim government in June 2004. NEWSWEEK's Melinda Liu and Larry Kaplow spoke to Zebari. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Washington urgently wants to see progress. What is the tone of communications between senior U.S. officials and Maliki?
ZEBARI: The message from President Bush and the U.S. government is very clear and consistent. They urge and encourage us to move faster. The whole idea of the surge is really to buy time [for political progress].
In the U.S. election, Iraq is the dominant issue. All the Americans we talk to say, "We stand by you and want to help you to succeed. We've invested a lot of blood and treasure. There's a lot at stake here. We're not cutting and running, but it's your government. Some things we cannot do. So you do it."
What do you think Gen. David Petraeus will say when he reports to Congress in September on the results of the "surge"?
[He'll say] "I've achieved most of my goals, but it's not enough. We need serious political movement, and this is not my job. National reconciliation—it has not happened." We [in the Iraqi government] had pledged to review de-Baathification measures and move towards a judicial process. There is progress on the oil law and another law on revenue sharing. On militias, it is government policy to not allow militias in the streets. These are all government goals—benchmarks for which people expect some movement, some sense of motion. There is still some time. We haven't given up yet.
Can you describe the relationship between Maliki and Petraeus?
Relations are difficult. Who's in charge? Who decides? I sympathize because the lines are blurred. The prime minister cannot just pick up the phone and have Iraqi Army units do what he says. Maliki needs more leverage.
Do Iraqi politicians know that American patience is running thin?
I've said over and over to the Parliament, "You can't act as if this is business as usual. It's not. People do expect progress."
What about the prime minister?
He recognizes the urgency. However, the political ground has shifted recently, making his job more difficult. The unified Shiite coalition has fragmented. Parliament is not functioning well.
Maliki speaks of coup rumors, apparently referring to Allawi without mentioning his name.
There is a sense of conspiracy. Allawi is moving around [the region]. The prime minister says there are groups that are out to undermine the government. He also checks with Washington and London. Always, their response [to us] is, "We are not part of it. We support you. Yours is the legitimate government." If there were any dramatic change, it would suspend the political process. What Allawi is hoping for is not a possibility. It would mean failure for the United States.
What did Allawi do to make Maliki think he's plotting a coup?
There was a serious conspiracy before this government was formed, which feeds the government's imagination—the Six Plus Two Group of intelligence chiefs of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Jordan, plus the United States and Britain. Their goal was to keep encouraging Sunnis to participate in the Iraqi elections, and to contain Iran. They put intelligence capability and financial muscle [into the effort]. It was not seen as a positive move by the prime minister, but we dealt with it quietly, without much fuss. After the election, the Six Plus Two Group continued without Iraqi participation. I complained, saying, "You're discussing Iraq and we're not present." It created bad feelings. Shiites and others took this as an anti-Shiite move. Kurds also felt, "What the hell does Turkey have to do with this? There must be something fishy."
They would meet every two or three months. Some [of our] people reported that Allawi met the Six Plus Two [in May] or that he had a wishy-washy guy, a Kurd who collaborated with the former government, do it.
By "wishy-washy guy" you mean Irshad Zebari.
He is my cousin. He was minister of State under Saddam. Allawi wanted to bring Kurdish faces to show that his new bloc represents all Iraqis, but [Kurdish leader Masoud] Barzani, [Iraqi President Jalal] Talabani and Maliki were really upset. It had the elements of something sinister against the government. Their criticism was a big blow to Allawi. I suggested the government check with the United States and Britain to see if they are part of it. They can't have it both ways. They can't support this government and also work with these people. I don't think Washington will support Allawi or give him any encouragement.