Heat Rises Between Iraq PM and Petraeus
Saturday, July 28, 2007; 2:05 PM
BAGHDAD -- A key aide says Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's relations with Gen. David Petraeus are so poor the Iraqi leader may ask Washington to withdraw the overall U.S. commander from his Baghdad post.
Iraq's foreign minister calls the relationship "difficult." Petraeus, who says their ties are "very good," acknowledges expressing his "full range of emotions" at times with al-Maliki. U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who meets with both at least weekly, concedes "sometimes there are sporty exchanges."
It seems less a clash of personality than of policy. The Shiite Muslim prime minister has reacted most sharply to the American general's tactic of enlisting Sunni militants, presumably including past killers of Iraqi Shiites, as allies in the fight against al-Qaida here.
An associate said al-Maliki once, in discussion with President Bush, even threatened to counter this by arming Shiite militias.
History shows that the strain of war often turns allies into uneasy partners. The reality of how these allies get along may lie somewhere between the worst and best reports about the relationship, one central to the future of Iraq and perhaps to the larger Middle East.
A tangle of issues confronts them, none with easy solutions:
_ Al-Maliki, a Shiite activist who spent the Saddam Hussein years in exile, hotly objects to the recent U.S. practice of recruiting tribal groups tied to the Sunni insurgency for the fight against the Sunni extremists of al-Qaida, deemed "Enemy No. 1" by the Americans. His loud complaints have won little but a U.S. pledge to let al-Maliki's security apparatus screen the recruits.
_ Aides say the Iraqi leader also has spoken bitterly about delivery delays of promised U.S. weapons and equipment for his forces.
_ Petraeus, meanwhile, must deal with an Iraqi military and police force, nominally under al-Maliki's control, that often acts out of sectarian, namely Shiite, interests, and not national Iraqi interests. He faces a significant challenge in persuading al-Maliki to shed his ties to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who runs the Mahdi Army militia.
_ On the political front, Crocker is grappling with the prime minister's seeming foot-dragging or ineffectiveness in pushing through an oil-industry law and other legislation seen as critical benchmarks by the U.S. government. Reporting to Congress in September, Crocker may have to explain such Iraqi inaction while U.S. troops are fighting and dying to give al-Maliki political breathing space.
First word of strained relations began leaking out with consistency earlier this month.
Sami al-Askari, a key aide to al-Maliki and a member of the prime minister's Dawa Party, said the policy of incorporating one-time Sunni insurgents into the security forces shows Petraeus has a "real bias and it bothers the Shiites," whose communities have been targeted by Sunnis in Iraq's sectarian conflict.