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A Bubbling Stew in Iraq
Why Nouri al-Maliki Is Blocking an International Conference

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, April 1, 2007

U.S. efforts to bring the world's great powers together with Iraq's quarrelsome neighbors to stabilize the government in Baghdad have predictably run into strong opposition. Didn't President Bush warn Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton that Syria and Iran were not interested in stopping the turmoil in Iraq?

Well, yes, he did. But the source of crippling opposition to a high-profile international conference in Turkey this month turns out not to have been foreseen by the president or by his critics on the Iraq Study Group, chaired by Baker and Hamilton. The gathering being pushed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been blocked for weeks by Nouri al-Maliki, the surprisingly strong-willed prime minister of Iraq.

Maliki has his own reasons, which I'll explain in a moment. But his initial sharp defiance of Washington's wishes -- and of the conventional diplomatic wisdom that meeting is always better than not meeting -- carries larger meanings. It again shows that America's ability to produce desired outcomes in the Middle East -- while not yet exhausted -- is waning rapidly as the Democratic majority in Congress challenges Bush's authority and the American occupation of Iraq enters its fifth draining year.

The policy disarray in Washington convinces many Iraqis that the United States is on its way out sooner rather than later. "The government must now prepare for the day after, rather than simply trying to delay it," says one Iraqi politician.

Maliki and his foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, have insisted for months that Iraq's neighbors should send senior officials to Baghdad if they want to hold a meeting that would help the government. The Iraqi position was repeated, in diplomatic form, at a preparatory meeting of regional ambassadors in Baghdad in early March.

But for political as well as security reasons, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and most other states in the region have stonewalled Iraq's proposal. So have France, Germany, Russia and other members of the U.N. Security Council or the Group of Eight industrial nations, which are also on Rice's invitation list for Turkey.

Washington has focused intense pressure on Maliki, who may yet agree to send Zebari to Istanbul rather than see the conference aborted. The reasons for his resistance were explained in these terms by an Iraqi official who requested anonymity in order to speak frankly:

"Why should we go to a meeting to be ganged up on by European and Arab countries that were against the liberation of Iraq to begin with? Why should it be held on the soil of a country that threatens and slights Iraqis instead of helping them?"

Turkey's military stands prepared to invade northern Iraq to destroy Kurdish guerrilla camps or to take control of the disputed city of Kirkuk, if circumstances warrant. Ankara has also pointedly refused to deal with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, an ethnic Kurd who asserts that his home town of Kirkuk is Kurdish, or with the regional Kurdish government of Massoud Barzani. Ankara's non-dialogue policy has led to interruptions of the movement of petroleum supplies across the Turkish border in recent weeks.

Only Iran has unequivocally said it would attend a ministerial meeting in Baghdad. Iranian officials suggest that Sunni Arab regimes fear that sending their high-level politicians to Baghdad would undercut the support they provide for the Sunni insurgents fighting U.S. troops and trying to destabilize Maliki's unsteady coalition government of Kurdish and sectarian Shiite parties.

Such is the stew of local tensions, grievances and countervailing forces that outsiders frequently overlook in drawing up grand military or diplomatic designs -- or even "benchmarks" and "deadlines" -- for Iraqis to carry out. Baker, Hamilton & Co. seem to have understood such regional tensions and barriers to meaningful dialogue no better than Bush and Rice.

Most Iraqis are still deeply suspicious of the Sunni-ruled countries, international organizations and, for that matter, U.S. administrations that sold them out to placate or neglect Saddam Hussein over three decades. Nor can they or the Arab regimes trust Iran's intentions. Iraqis have earned the right to look skeptically at foreign governments that have suddenly come to "help" them.

For the ironic of mind, Maliki's stubborn stance recalls the dangers of answered prayers. Fed up with his vaporous indecisiveness, U.S. diplomats helped dump Ibrahim al-Jafari, Maliki's predecessor (and ideological ally), and bring the more forceful Maliki to office last year.

Bush praised Maliki as a "strong leader" when the two met in November. Now he deals with the consequences of conjuring up a decision maker who decides in ways that the president may well not like, much less be able to control.

jimhoagland@washpost.com

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