By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
Declaring the government of Iraq "non-functional," the influential chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said yesterday that Iraq's parliament should oust Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his cabinet if they are unable to forge a political compromise with rival factions in a matter of days.
"I hope the parliament will vote the Maliki government out of office and will have the wisdom to replace it with a less sectarian and more unifying prime minister and government," Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) said after a three-day trip to Iraq and Jordan.
Levin's statement, the most forceful call for leadership change in Iraq from a U.S. elected official, comes as about two dozen lawmakers are traveling to Iraq during Congress's August break to glean firsthand assessments before receiving a progress report next month from Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander there, and Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador.
Not every Democrat has come back from Iraq supporting a drawdown of U.S. forces in the coming months, as party leaders have advocated. Staking out positions that could complicate efforts to achieve party unity in September, a few Democratic lawmakers have returned expressing support for a continued troop presence. One of them, Rep. Brian Baird (Wash.), said yesterday that he will no longer vote for binding troop withdrawal timelines.
Levin's comments to reporters followed the release of a joint statement with the second-ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, Sen. John W. Warner (Va.), which was pessimistic about Iraq's political future. The statement referred to a round of recent meetings between Maliki, who is backed by President Bush, and Iraqi political leaders as "the last chance for this government to solve the Iraqi political crisis."
Maliki, a Shiite, has been trying to hold a summit with rival Sunni political leaders and ethnic Kurdish officials to reach a compromise on several contentious issues, including a formula to distribute the country's oil revenue and a law aimed at allowing some former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to hold government jobs. The meeting, which was scheduled to start last week, has been repeatedly delayed.
Should those talks fail in the next few days, Warner and Levin said, "the Iraqi Council of Representatives and the Iraqi people need to judge the Government of Iraq's record and determine what actions should be taken -- consistent with the Iraqi Constitution -- to form a true unity government to meet those responsibilities."
Warner, a war supporter who has grown skeptical of U.S. involvement, was traveling yesterday and unable to comment on the joint statement.
The two senators' assessment is only the most recent move in a series of efforts by both political parties to gain momentum before the next political showdown over the war.
Yesterday, Americans United for Change, an umbrella group with labor backing, unleashed new television advertisements against Sens. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) and Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) and Reps. Jon Porter (R-Nev.) and Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), tying them to Bush's war policies as Democrats press for Republican fissures.
Republicans also are trying to use the congressional trips to their political advantage. The tours, carefully conducted by the Defense Department, generally include visits to the Green Zone for consultations with U.S. and Iraqi officials, trips to forward operating bases and joint security stations involved in Petraeus's new counterinsurgency program, and heavily guarded tours of open markets, often in Anbar province, where a U.S. alliance with Sunni sheiks has calmed the region.
Republican leaders have seized upon any positive statements from lawmakers returning from Iraq to portray Democratic leaders as wedded to failure there while the Democratic Party grows increasingly divided over the war's progress.
Last Friday, Baird told the Olympian, a newspaper in his district, that he now believes the United States should stay in the country as long as necessary to ensure stability.
That followed comments by Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.) suggesting that his trip to Iraq made him more flexible in his search for a bipartisan accord on the future U.S. role in the conflict. "If anything, I'm more willing to work to find a way forward," he told reporters late last month.
Rep. Tim Mahoney (D-Fla.), who was with McNerney, told his local paper that the troop increase "has really made a difference and really has gotten al-Qaeda on their heels."
At times, such statements have been clearly taken out of context. When Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) returned from Iraq and said, "We're making some measurable progress," the GOP declared that the Democratic leadership had splintered on the war. What Republicans left out was the rest of Durbin's remarks: "We cannot win this war militarily. We just can't send enough troops."
But some Democrats have shifted their views. Baird said yesterday that Congress's debate over the war has destabilized Iraq by sending wary Iraqi politicians back to their sectarian bases of support.
"We are making real and tangible progress on the ground, for one," Baird said, "and if we withdraw, it could have a potentially catastrophic effect on the region."
Levin was unambiguous. Like other Democrats, he hailed the work of U.S. forces and an increasingly capable Iraqi army. Ten of the Iraqi army's 12 divisions are now trained, Levin said, and by year's end, an 11th will be ready.
Even so, he said, those forces will not take control until U.S. troops stand down. Levin stood by his timeline for beginning troop withdrawals within four months, with most U.S. forces out by the middle of next year.
It was Levin's comments on Maliki that broke new ground. The Bush administration has continued to back Maliki for several reasons, including concern that the collapse of his Shiite-dominated government might lead to months of internal political conflict. (After the 2005 elections, the newly elected parliament took five months to form a government.) U.S. officials also believe that Maliki has fewer ties to Iran than do other major Shiite candidates.
Yesterday, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the administration continues to believe that "Prime Minister Maliki and the Presidency Council will be able to get this important work done."
Despite their deepening concerns about Maliki's leadership flaws, U.S. officials also believe that any new prime minister would confront the same obstacles in trying to broker political reconciliation.
Still, Democrats have quietly begun to voice a view that Maliki must go; Durbin said he told White House national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley that last week. But they acknowledge that they do not know what would happen next. If it appeared that Maliki had been ousted at Washington's behest, his replacement would be seen as a U.S. puppet -- a "kiss of death" in the region, Durbin said.
And Democratic leaders might feel compelled to ease their antiwar position to allow a new government to take root.
"Imagine if we have to step in with a brand-new leader and a new government," Durbin said. "How many more months would we have to wait?"
Staff writers Robin Wright and Walter Pincus contributed to this report.