Despite Problems, Iraqi Leader Boasts of Success

By Amit R. Paley and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 29, 2008

BAGHDAD, Feb. 28 -- Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gazed out at a sea of chanting Shiite pilgrims Thursday and offered a brash appraisal of his administration's 21-month tenure.

"We promised we would bring national reconciliation to the sons of Iraq, and we have succeeded!" Maliki thundered to hundreds of thousands of Shiites gathered at the golden-domed Imam Hussein Shrine in Karbala. "Iraqis are once again loving brothers!"

Maliki is facing a drumbeat of criticism that his government has achieved little progress as well as constant calls for his ouster, but these days he hardly sounds like a man fighting for his political survival. He acts as if he has the upper hand over his political rivals, brusquely rejecting demands from key allies and making a bold grab for greater control of the federal bureaucracy.

The 57-year-old Shiite and former exile feels little cause for concern, according to his aides, because he enjoys the strong backing of the Bush administration, which worries that the chaos triggered by the collapse of Maliki's government would prompt a new wave of sectarian bloodletting across Iraq. With the infighting by the political class in Iraq as bitter as ever, Maliki believes the odds are remote that any coalition could come together to oust him, his aides say.

"The message is that he is tough and he is not going to compromise," said Sami al-Askiri, a Shiite member of parliament who is a confidant and informal adviser to Maliki. "I think now the prime minister feels that he is more secure, both for himself and for the country in general."

Maliki's confidence seems untethered to political reality. Predicting when his government will fall has become a parlor game in certain circles in Baghdad. And some of his pronouncements -- like one on Thursday that "sectarianism has been eliminated" -- have struck Iraqi and American officials as bordering on the delusional. Sectarian killings are still common and political reconciliation remains elusive, a fact underscored by the veto this week of a law calling for nationwide elections, one of the few major pieces of legislation approved by parliament.

"He's failed at governing," acknowledged a senior U.S. official in Baghdad, who was granted anonymity so he could speak candidly, but the official said there was no better option. "If Maliki were to be removed by a vote of no confidence, we'd go into an extended period of stagnation."

Publicly, at least, Maliki's major political rivals have expressed support for him and denied persistent rumors that they are plotting to topple him. One of the figures most regularly listed as a potential successor, Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi, has no current plans to unseat Maliki, his associates said.

"For the time being, our strategy is to see that he remains," Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of Abdul Mahdi's Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a powerful Shiite political party, said in an interview. "It's necessary to see a change happen in the government, not a change of the government."

But the emerging braggadocio displayed by Maliki has tested the limits of that support.

Perhaps the most serious showdown came in December, when a group of senior Kurdish officials flew to Baghdad to discuss a list of demands with Maliki.

The delegation, led by the prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Nechirvan Barzani, wanted to ensure that the Kurds would receive 17 percent of Iraq's $50 billion budget, a figure that Maliki believed was far too high. The Kurds also wanted the central government in Baghdad to fund their regional military, known as the pesh merga; to allow them to pursue independent oil contracts with foreign companies; and to support their push to bring the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk under Kurdish control.

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