By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 13, 2010; 12:00 AM
Vice President Biden made numerous calls to senior Iraqi leaders over the past several months and U.S. officials directly participated in top-level negotiating sessions that lasted until just moments before the Iraqi parliament finally convened Thursday to approve a new power-sharing government, a senior Obama administration official said Friday.
Hoping to rebut criticism that it had lost influence in Iraq and was too passive over the eight months since the March elections there, or that its efforts were designed to keep Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in power, the administration offered a detailed written account of previously unreported meetings, visits and calls that it said Biden and others had made.
Biden, Obama's point man on Iraq, telephoned Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, a key figure in the negotiations, as often as several times a week, according to the administration timeline. Last week, the vice president was on the phone almost daily, with calls to Barzani, Maliki, Iraqi President Jalal Talibani and Ayad Allawi, the secular Shiite leader of the Sunni-dominated Iraqiya bloc that won a narrow plurality of parliamentary seats.
The White House also kept in touch with leaders in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey, all of whom had a vested interest in the outcome. In recent weeks the Saudis, who had privately told the administration they would never support Maliki's continuance in office, said they would support whatever the Iraqis agreed to.
Under the deal announced Thursday, Maliki, a Shiite, remains as prime minister, with Talibani, a Kurd, retaining the presidency. Iraqiya holds the parliamentary speakership and Allawi is set to assume chairmanship of a newly formed policy council, empowered to set government direction on a wide range of issues.
The deal appeared to have died even before it got off the ground. Iraqiya lawmakers walked out of the new government's first parliamentary session, saying they did not trust Maliki and the others to keep the new agreements. On the street, Sunnis expressed deep conviction that Maliki had stolen the prime ministership from Allawi.
Early Friday, Biden called newly elected parliamentary speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, of Iraqiya, to urge that he reassure his own partisans. The vice president "made the point that the world wants, the United States wants, the region wants to see Iraqiya and the Sunni Arab community" participate fully in the government, the senior official said. Biden told Nujaifi that he "has the opportunity to make clear that's the way it's going to be."
With the parliament due to reconvene Saturday, weary administration officials crossed their fingers and hoped for the best. "Obviously, none of these people like each other very much," the official said. "It could be a very unwieldy coalition for a long time."
Until early this month, Iraq's four primary voting blocs - Maliki's State of Law Party, a separate Shiite group, the Kurds and Iraqiya - were negotiating "in twosies," the official said, trying to amass a parliamentary majority that excluded the others. It took until recently, the official said, for everyone to realize "it didn't work."
Part of the administration's task, and the reason for Biden's frequent calls to Barzani, was to keep the Kurds from striking a deal with the others. "If he had joined forces with Maliki before there was a satisfactory arrangement for Iraqiya, the game would have been up," the official said.
U.S. diplomats attended most meetings. "Everybody wants us around to keep the other guy honest," the official said. "They also welcomed our ideas on how to move forward and modify the system to meet their needs." The diplomats helped write position papers, offered bridging positions and shuttled information from one group to another.
The breakthrough came last Saturday, when Barzani convened a meeting of bloc leaders and four-way horsetrading began. In written, but still unsigned, agreements, the Kurds were promised early movement on internal boundary disputes between them and Iraqi Arabs, and on long-stalled regulations to manage the oil industry.
Ideas for the new council, and resolution of antagonisms over Sunni access to government positions, were brokered. According to the administration official, agreement was reached to prevent partisans of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose party won 40 parliamentary seats, from holding any military or security positions in the government.
Government ministries, still to be divided among the parties, were "monetized," with each given numerical points according to its importance. "If you got the presidency," the official said the Iraqis agreed, "you might get less in the cabinet. . . . They have an informal sense of the points in their heads. That's how they'll work it out."