Iraq: With Friends Like These ...

It may have been the last time George W. Bush felt really good about Iraq. Last June, as the president flew back from a surprise visit to Baghdad--and his first sitdown with the new Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki--he was visibly excited. Bush was savoring a rare moment in his presidency: an unbroken string of great news out of Iraq. The U.S. Air Force had just knocked off Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi at his hideout north of Baghdad. The tough, plain-spoken Maliki had replaced Ibrahim Jaafari, Iraq's disastrously wishy-washy interim prime minister. And Bush had brazenly ordered Air Force One into a war zone in broad daylight so that he could shake hands with Iraq's first democratically elected leader under the new Constitution. The president wasn't disappointed. "I wanted to hear whether or not he was stuck in the past or willing to think about the future," a relaxed Bush later told reporters onboard Air Force One. "And I came away with a very positive impression." Maliki, Bush said back then, "is a no-nonsense guy that talks about priorities and how he's going to achieve the priorities. And that's comforting."

The White House doesn't seem to be taking much comfort in Maliki now. Late last week Bush gathered a group of his dwindling Republican supporters in the third-floor solarium at the White House to discuss his latest plan to salvage the war in Iraq--the deployment of 21,000 more U.S. troops to pacify Baghdad and Anbar province. According to one participant, conservative Sen. Craig Thomas of Wyoming, many of the GOP senators expressed doubts that America could depend on Maliki. They cited the Shiite leader's failure to quell the sectarian violence that contributed to the deaths of more than 34,000 Iraqis in 2006, according to the United Nations, as well as nearly 600 U.S. soldiers since he took over in May. "The president expressed doubts, too," says Thomas. With Vice President Dick Cheney sitting silently beside him, Bush "also indicated he was going to make pretty clear what he expects from the prime minister." Echoing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who recently told Congress that Maliki was living on "borrowed time," Bush added ominously that "if [Maliki's effort] doesn't work very well there's a good chance those people over there will replace him," says Thomas.

Rarely have so many American hopes depended on a single foreign leader--and one of dubious loyalties at that. The president will walk into the well of the House for his seventh State of the Union speech this week, knowing that his fate is inextricably tied to Maliki's. While Bush will get the customary ovation, he knows the war has emboldened Democrats and silenced Republicans in Congress. In the new NEWSWEEK Poll, the president's approval rating matched his record low of 31 percent. Seventy percent of Americans disapprove of his handling of Iraq, and more than half trust the Democrats in Congress to make better decisions about the war. Two thirds oppose his plan to inject more troops into the fight. Among Republicans, however, there is still broad support for both the war and the president, which creates a dilemma for nervous GOP candidates looking to the next election.

Not surprisingly, the president has retooled his State of the Union address to focus on Iraq. And the key audience will not be Democrats, who are planning to vote on a nonbinding Senate resolution opposing Bush's "surge" plan next week. Instead it will be Republicans, at least a dozen of whom are expected to join Sen. Chuck Hagel voting in favor.

Much of their skepticism can be traced back to mistrust of Maliki, who admittedly has not given them much reason for confidence. The Iraqi prime minister was put into power with the support of Shiite radical Moqtada al-Sadr's political bloc, and has stymied previous U.S. attempts to target Sadr's Mahdi Army militia. During the most recent U.S. attempt to stabilize Baghdad, just last fall, he could not or would not provide enough Iraqi troops to make the plan work. His handling of Saddam Hussein's execution, an unsavory affair marred by Shiite taunts of the former dictator, again raised questions of whether he was biased against Sunnis. "So much of our future in that place is in the hands of Maliki," says one Republican doubter, Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio, who doesn't think the Iraqi prime minister is up to the challenge. He also worries that Maliki wants to turn Iraq into "a Shiite theocracy like they have in Iran."

True, like many Shiite opponents of Saddam, Maliki spent almost a decade in exile--in Syria and Iran--in the 1980s. During that time he developed ties to the Sadr family, and his Dawa Party is seen by many Iraqi Sunnis as part of Tehran's sphere of influence. Yet unlike Sadr or other Iraqi politicians like Abdelaziz al-Hakim, leader of the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), he is not a cleric himself. He also has a reputation as a pragmatist, earned while helping to negotiate Iraq's Constitution in 2005. Asked about Sadr last week, Maliki said that if the cleric works with the Baghdad government, then "he is my friend and he is my ally. If he does the opposite, he would be someone who is rebellious, someone who is acting against the law. To assure you ... in the last four years, I only talked to [Sadr] twice."

Bush's new public coolness toward Maliki is at least partly an attempt to show skeptical Republicans that he's not going into this blindly. For his part, Maliki cannot afford to look as though he's kowtowing to Washington when Sunni insurgents continue to massacre his fellow Shiites. He hasn't publicly supported Bush's "surge" plan, and responded to questions about Rice's "borrowed time" remark by saying the secretary had given a "morale boost" to terrorists.

On the other hand, to establish his bona fides with Bush, Maliki emphasized to reporters in Baghdad last week that Iraqi forces had detained some 400 members of Sadr's militia in recent months. Still, U.S. officials were unnerved two weeks ago when Maliki named an obscure Shiite general from Iraq's south, Lt. Gen. Aboud Qanbar, as the new commander of Iraqi forces in Baghdad. A U.S. official who is privy to Iraq intelligence but would discuss sensitive material only anonymously noted that there were many other officers whom Maliki could have chosen for the job who would have been less polarizing to Sunnis.

The U.S. military is now so suspicious of Maliki that on Friday, when U.S. forces arrested Sadr's media director in Baghdad, Sheik Abdul Hadi Darraji, the prime minister's office wasn't even informed of the raid. Darraji has been linked to death-squad killings of Sunnis in Baghdad. Some Iraqi politicians who are also leery of Maliki say it was wise of the Americans to keep him out of the loop. "If Maliki had been told, [the arrest] wouldn't have happened," says Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of Parliament. "Maliki would not agree to this." Indeed Maliki has intervened several times in recent months to secure the release of Sadr supporters.

Why has Bush seemingly staked his legacy on this contradictory figure? At one time the bond seemed deeply personal. At their last face-to-face meeting, in Jordan in November, Bush called the Iraqi prime minister "the right guy for Iraq." His judgment was based partly on Bush's respect for Maliki's courage under fire. "He's been in power for six months, and I've been able to watch a leader emerge," the president told reporters. At the same time, White House officials also revealed they had eavesdropped on Maliki's private conversations to make sure the Iraqi prime minister was telling his supporters the same thing he was telling U.S. officials. They were reassured that he was, for the most part--a marked contrast to Jaafari.

According to sources knowledgeable about the discussions, departing U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has also supported Maliki's line on Sadr--that his ties to the cleric give him a better chance than anyone of persuading Sadr to work within the political system. But the biggest reason to trust Maliki may simply be that Washington has no other choice. Hakim's SCIRI is the single largest party in Parliament and would likely provide the next prime minister if Maliki were voted out. But U.S. officials note that the first Shiite death squads to appear on the scene in 2005 had shadowy links to the Ministry of Interior, which is dominated by Hakim's party. There is no talk of replacing Maliki with a military strongman--something that would be virulently opposed not only by Iraqis but also, according to the NEWSWEEK Poll, by 83 percent of Americans. Maliki "is a reasonably bad choice among a set of really bad options," says one former senior U.S. official who spoke anonymously because he maintains close ties to the White House.

Ironically, American generals may be more willing to give Maliki time than the politicians back in Washington. Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, the incoming commander of multinational forces in Iraq, understands that the main point of the surge is to provide just enough security on the streets of Baghdad. Then, say Defense officials speaking anonymously because they are not authorized to discuss Petraeus's thinking, Maliki can theoretically persuade Sadr to stand down his militia. If that succeeds, then the frightened Sunni population might just be persuaded to part ways with insurgents. While Mahdi militia commanders warn they will retaliate if attacked by the Americans, for now the movement's political leaders are urging patience. "We have instructions from Sayeed Moqtada to stay calm so that the Sadr followers aren't dragged into this confrontation," Baha al-Araji, a senior Sadr leader and member of the National Assembly, told NEWSWEEK.

The question is whether Bush or Maliki will get all the time they need. Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon, another Republican who has come out as a strong critic of the surge plan, says many of his GOP colleagues who still publicly support the war effort have told him they're giving the president until the end of 2007. "Patience is not inexhaustible, and it is likely to run out this year," Smith said. The problem: the better part of the "surge" troops won't get there until the middle of 2007, leaving Maliki little time to produce.

And so Bush and Maliki are engaged in an awkward minuet with one another: each needs a partner, but they can't afford to dance too closely. As Maliki himself puts it rather clinically: "A relationship of interconnected interests has been formed between me and President Bush." While administration officials deny there is any "Plan B" if Maliki fails--if he prevents U.S. troops from going after Shia militias and Sunni insurgents equally, for instance--this is mostly to try to pump up public confidence. "Of course the administration has thought about it," says Philip Zelikow, who served as Rice's senior counselor until January. "They don't want to talk about it. They're trying to create a climate of positive expectations to replace the vicious cycle of negative expectations last year." Expectations are fine--for a time. But reality ultimately matters more, and the shape of that reality is now in the hands of Nuri al-Maliki.