Iraq's Maliki and Washington Share an Interest in Countering Sectarian Forces

By Jackson Diehl
Sunday, July 26, 2009

Imagine that the Iraqi prime minister comes to Washington for a full menu of meetings with a new American administration. The war in his country is not yet over; 130,000 U.S. troops remain in place; a fateful national election is on the horizon. The night of their summit meeting, the U.S. president holds a televised news conference: Not one question concerns Iraq. Two days later, following the Iraqi's working session with the secretary of state, a joint appearance before the media leads to a newsmaking statement -- about U.S. policy in Honduras.

Nouri al-Maliki presents himself as unfazed, unsurprised and maybe even a little pleased by the low profile he has had here the last few days. "The lack of focus on Iraq at the public level is a reflection of the fact that while Iraq was once a very hot part of the globe . . . now it has settled down," the prime minister said in a meeting with three Post journalists Saturday. "In the past it was all about al-Qaeda and about militias and about guns. This is evidence of our performance in achieving victory over those forces. This is a success."

Maliki has a point, of course. The U.S. death toll in Iraq of seven this month is half that of last July and a fraction of that in July 2007, when 80 died. After an initial spike in violence as U.S. forces withdrew from Iraqi cities last month, Iraqi casualties are down again, too. July may be the most peaceful month in years -- maybe decades. Maliki said that the American withdrawal from the cities, in strict compliance with a deal he struck last year with the Bush administration, had done much to bolster Iraqis' support for the alliance.

"It gave a very positive image to the Iraqi people, it supported the credibility of the Americans, it vouched for their good intentions," he said. "It embarrassed all those who cast doubt on this relationship." After six years of U.S. military operations and all that has come with it, "the general feeling for the Americans is positive and cooperative and in fact aspires to more cooperation," he said.

Maliki went out of his way here to focus attention on the new, more normal relationship he would like Iraq to have with the United States. He pressed for the fulfillment of the non-military chapters of the "strategic framework" agreement signed this year; he met with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He signed a deal that will allow thousands of Iraqi students to study in the United States, with in-state tuition from Ohio.

Still, the new normal goes only so far -- and that's where the national elections, scheduled for January, come in. Hoshyar Zebari, Maliki's foreign minister, says that the vote will be "the most important one" in the country's history -- "it will really set Iraq toward its fate and its destiny," he said last week. That's because the vote will determine not only whether the increasingly assertive Maliki will be confirmed as the country's postwar leader but whether Iraq will continue to be defined by a competition among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds or by national and secular political alliances.

Iraq's big parties are deeply divided on this point -- as are its neighbors. Iran is pushing for another all-Shiite coalition to rule from Baghdad; Jordan and Saudi Arabia have Sunni clients. Maliki, on the other hand, describes himself as having the same interest as the United States: to forge a national coalition that would transcend his Shiite identity and include Sunnis and, possibly, Kurds. Such an Iraqi government could more easily reach the national accords on oil revenue and territorial disputes that the Obama administration is hoping for; and it would mean a more democratic and Western-leaning Iraq.

"We will not enter into any alliance with a sectarian or ethnic basis," Maliki said flatly, "because I believe Iraq is a state based on the concept of citizenship, not on ethnic or religious affiliation." He confirmed that he favors a district-based election system, rather than a single national candidate list for each party -- something that contributed to the sectarian character of the 2006 election. And he denounced what he described as the active intervention by Iraq's neighbors. "It is the height of political corruption," he said, "to have one list supported and funded from outside Iraq."

Maliki sometimes suggests that he no longer sees a role for the United States in this fight over Iraq's future, but that's not what he said Saturday. "Our American friends can help by trying to persuade some of our neighbors with which they have good relations to refrain from interfering in the Iraqi elections," he said, seeming to refer to Saudi Arabia and Jordan. But he quickly added, "we understand that with some neighbors the United States does not have good relations."

"Because the United States commands some influence and respect . . . it can advocate and support the tendency toward national politics as opposed to sectarian," Maliki said. To me, his message sounded clear enough: If he is to resist those in Iran and elsewhere in the region who would push his country back toward sectarianism, the prime minister is going to need American help -- and the turning point will come in the next six months.

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