By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 6, 2008
BAGHDAD, Sept. 5 -- Iraqi leaders expressed incredulity and disappointment Friday over a report that U.S. officials had spied on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other top Iraqi leaders.
"If it is true, it reflects that there is no trust and it reflects also that the institutions in the United States are used to spying on their friends and their enemies in the same way," Ali al-Dabbagh, a spokesman for the Iraqi government, said in a statement. "We will ask for an explanation."
Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward wrote about the reported espionage in his fourth book about the Bush administration, "The War Within: A Secret White House History, 2006-2008," which is scheduled to be released Monday. The Post published an article Friday about some of Woodward's findings.
Some Iraqi officials said the revelation is likely to hinder already contentious negotiations toward an agreement that would govern the role of U.S. troops in Iraq after the expiration in December of the U.N. mandate that allows them to operate in Iraq.
"It is going to affect the level of trust between us as two parties," said Abbas al-Bayati, an Iraqi lawmaker who acts as a spokesman for the United Iraqi Alliance, a Shiite political coalition that includes Maliki's party. "Spying is usually done when one party is hiding something, and we know the Iraqi government has nothing to hide from the Americans."
Bayati said he was dumbfounded by the report. "I see no reason for them to spy on Iraqi leaders, because they are in constant touch with the [U.S.] Embassy and the military hierarchy, and we're always meeting continuously with them at the highest and lowest levels," the lawmaker said.
White House press secretary Dana Perino declined to comment on whether the United States spied on Maliki but characterized the relationship with the Iraqi leader as "frank, open and candid." She said that the U.S. ambassador sees him almost daily and that President Bush speaks to him regularly by video teleconference.
"We have a good idea of what Prime Minister Maliki is thinking, because he tells us very frankly and very candidly, as often as he can," Perino said. When pressed on whether she was denying the spying allegations, Perino said: "I didn't deny it. I said I declined to comment on it."
U.S. officials said they were caught off guard this spring when Maliki deployed Iraqi troops to Basra for a crackdown on Shiite militias that sparked a wave of violence throughout the country. Subsequent joint military operations have been described as coordinated efforts.
U.S. officials have portrayed their role in Iraq as a supportive one and have repeatedly expressed respect for Iraq's sovereignty.
Bassam Sharif, a spokesman for the Shiite Fadhila Party, said the revelation didn't come as a total surprise. "We all know that all communications are under the supervision of Americans," he added. "They have full control over all phone and wireless communication."
Iraqi officials rely heavily on cellphones. Many top officials have MCI phones with U.S. area codes in addition to Iraqi cellphones, which are often unreliable.
The Post's story on Friday did not say how long the reported espionage has been carried out or provide details on how it has been conducted. "We know everything he says," a U.S. official told Woodward, referring to Maliki.
Other top Iraqi officials were more cautious in response to the disclosure. "I think it's too early to comment," said Sadiq al-Rikabi, a political adviser to Maliki. "It should not happen. If it's true, I express my regret."
Liwa Smaysim, leader of a political bloc loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has opposed the U.S. presence, said the bloc's members have long suspected that U.S. officials eavesdrop on their conversations.
"The U.S. is occupying our country," he said. "They infiltrate everything. They can enter any office belonging to the government."
He said many Iraqi officials watch what they say over the phone and sometimes use prepaid cellphones rather than those registered in their names.
"I am certain that someone is spying on my phone," he said.
Staff writer Dan Eggen in Washington and special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim and Zaid Sabah in Baghdad contributed to this report.