Q&A: Iraq's Maliki on Bush, Challenges

The call from President George W. Bush came hours after terrorist bombs brought down the minarets of the Golden Mosque in the Iraqi city of Samarra. The attack last week was a replay of the conflagration that destroyed the golden dome of the same Shiite shrine on Feb. 22, 2006—the date Iraq's sectarian strife took the turn toward open civil war. So in Baghdad, embattled Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was scrambling: he imposed curfews, blamed Al Qaeda, pleaded with his people to forgo their vendettas. His situation looked desperate and his credibility shot. (Only the day before, he'd told visiting Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, "We have eliminated the danger of sectarian war.") Then, at about midnight Baghdad time, the White House called.

Maliki welcomed the friendly American voice on the other end of the line. "President Bush called me, and he declared his deepest sympathy and readiness to reconstruct the whole shrine of Samarra," Maliki told NEWSWEEK in an exclusive interview. The Iraqi praised Bush's human touch. Indeed, the dour-faced Shiite politician's aides say he often brightens up after talking to the U.S. president one-on-one, whether by phone, in person or in a videoconference. "You can see how happy he is," says Sami Al-Askari, a close adviser, speaking of past encounters. "Mr. Bush encourages him."

Their bond has a lot to do with fate, says Maliki: "Destiny wanted to bring together two people who strongly stick to their principles." But the two men are also linked by their precarious political positions. The U.S. military has acknowledged that its surge in forces is not likely to bring stability to Baghdad by the end of summer. Elsewhere in the region, the Hamas takeover of Gaza and the latest assassination of an anti-Syria legislator in Lebanon suggest the impotence of American policy. So pressure is rising for some sort of political breakthrough in Iraq. In recent weeks a parade of American legislators, generals and diplomats have tramped through Baghdad to push Maliki for quicker progress on a range of stalled measures, from a new oil law to reconciling with former Baathists. Bush's unflagging support runs the risk of undercutting that message.

Perhaps it's not surprising that a stubborn president of the United States and this equally stubborn prime minister of Iraq find solace in each other's company. They're both increasingly isolated from the people they are supposed to lead. They are contemporaries (Bush is 60, Maliki is 57), and both spent most of their lives as relatively unworldly men, albeit worlds apart. Both have had to learn on the job while in the top job. Both are surrounded by small circles of confidants who have given them demonstrably bad advice where the future of Iraq is concerned. Both are at odds with fractious legislatures. Both are deeply religious and have important fundamentalist constituencies. Each of them very much needs the other to succeed, and neither has any real alternative.

But while Bush reassures Maliki, the American public's patience is running out. Last week in quick succession three senior U.S. officials flew to Baghdad—Adm. William Fallon, the top commander in the Middle East, Negroponte and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The message the U.S. officials wanted to hammer home to the Iraqis, Gates said, is "that our troops are buying them time to pursue reconciliation, that frankly we are disappointed with the progress so far."

Under the circumstances, another man might push harder and faster for change. But Maliki says he needs time in order to make long-term decisions—ones that will be "written in stone"—and says he's confident that Bush understands. "The timetables given, sometimes I do not find them in President Bush's mind so much as they are in the minds of some people who make [public] statements," says Maliki. As for the U.S. Congress: "Every time I meet President Bush through the videoconference I tell him that I have a hard time dealing with the Parliament or the political blocs [in Iraq]. He says, 'I have a worse time dealing with the Congress'."

In fact, the system Maliki's working in does share much of the blame for the political stalemate. On many days the Iraqi Parliament cannot manage a quorum; several legislators spend most of their time out of the country. Cabinet positions are apportioned out to parties, and ministers answer to their factions before they do to Maliki. He told a closed-door session of Parliament that the sectarian bickering kept him "in handcuffs."

But questions remain about Maliki's commitment to true reconciliation and power-sharing. Maliki's office has reasserted a law allowing it to block corruption probes against ministers and used it to protect political allies, according to documents obtained by NEWSWEEK and a knowledgeable source who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals. U.S. commanders have said that orders still occasionally come from high levels in the government ordering the release of captured Shiite militiamen—though Maliki has also authorized the arrest of ranking militia commanders. Maliki admits that he is deeply suspicious of Baathists, but insists he is reaching out to Sunnis in general.

As Maliki told Admiral Fallon, "There are two mentalities in this region: conspiracy and mistrust." Those currents run deeply through his own psyche. Maliki fled Baghdad in 1979 under threat of death, hiding in the marshes. Friends say more than 60 members of his family, including a brother-in-law, were killed by Saddam Hussein's thugs.

He has some reason to be suspicious even now. Iraq's Sunni-dominated Arab neighbors are hostile to Maliki, whom they see as ceding too much influence to Iran. That's led to constant rumors of coup plots. Former prime minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who was once a Baathist and then a favorite of the Central Intelligence Agency's, has been openly trying to organize a bloodless parliamentary putsch against Maliki with support from Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others. "He has enormous pressures from all sides that he has to grapple with," says a senior U.S. military officer, who was not authorized to speak on the record. But at least he knows one person in Washington he can call for support.