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U.S.-Iraq Talks on Security Delayed a Day

November 29, 2006 at 10:24 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: The now-delayed Iraq-American summit. Ray Suarez has our story.

RAY SUAREZ: News cameras captured President Bush’s arrival in Jordan today and his meeting with King Abdullah and caught the moment when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met with the king, as well.

But missing was the most anticipated moment of the day: a face-to-face between the president and the prime minister. It was cancelled hours after the New York Times printed a classified memo written by National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley that cites doubts about the Iraqi leader, but White House officials have denied a link between the story and the postponed meeting.

For Maliki, the memo was one more vivid reminder that he’s a leader under heavy pressure at home and abroad. At home, by threats against his entourage, as he toured Sadr City in Baghdad on Sunday, offering support and condolences to his fellow Shiite Muslims. Two hundred and fifty of them were killed there Thursday in a string of suicide bombings, and dozens of Sunnis were killed in retaliatory attacks.

NOURI AL-MALIKI, Prime Minister, Iraq (through translator): The crisis is political, and it’s the politicians who must try to prevent more violence and bloodletting. The terrorist acts are a reflection of the lack of a political accord.

RAY SUAREZ: That lack of accord was even more apparent today, when the powerful Shiite bloc loyal to anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced they were leaving the government, at least temporarily.

SALIH AL-IGEILI, Shiite Member, Iraqi Parliament (through translator): The Sadrist bloc in the parliament and the ministers of the Sadr bloc have suspended their participation in the parliament and the government, protesting this visit, which is considered as provocation to the feelings of the Iraqi people and a violation of their constitutional rights.

RAY SUAREZ: Sadr’s political bloc controls at least 30 seats at parliament and six cabinet ministers.

Sadr’s support was crucial to the prime minister’s election in April. It followed months of failed negotiations to create a unity government after the December elections. The Bush administration has fervently defended Maliki, especially when he visited the White House in July.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: The prime minister has laid out a comprehensive plan. That’s what leaders do. They see problems; they address problems; and they lay out a plan to solve the problems. The prime minister understands he’s got challenges, and he’s identified priorities.

RAY SUAREZ: But the president more recently has taken a different tone.

GEORGE W. BUSH: We’re making it clear that America’s patience is not unlimited; yet, we also understand the difficult challenges Iraq’s leaders face, and we will not put more pressure on the Iraqi government than it can bear.

RAY SUAREZ: A week after that comment, National Security Adviser Hadley met with Maliki in Baghdad. That conversation spawned the leaked memo.

Hadley wrote, “The reality on the streets of Baghdad suggests Maliki is either ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions, or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into action.”

The document also recommended steps for Maliki to take control of Iraq. Among them, bring his political strategy with Muqtada al-Sadr to closure, and bring to justice any members of the Mahdi Army that do not eschew violence; shake up his cabinet by appointing non-sectarian, capable technocrats in key service and security ministries; and to announce plans to expand the Iraqi army over the next nine months.

Maliki and President Bush are expected to meet tomorrow.

Reasons for the delay

Trudy Rubin
The Philadelphia Inquirer
The memo might have been part of it. He [Nouri al-Maliki] has to show a certain amount of independence from the United States. He's being criticized by the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has strong popular support in the Shiite slums of Baghdad.

RAY SUAREZ: We take up the story now with Laith Kubba, who served as spokesman for Iraq's previous government from April 2005 until January of this year, and Trudy Rubin, foreign affairs columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She's been to Iraq six times since the 2003 invasion.

And, Trudy, let me start with you. Is this a significant development, this last-minute postponement of the Bush-Maliki talks?

TRUDY RUBIN, The Philadelphia Inquirer: Well, Maliki is still going to meet with the president, and I think the real issue is whether anything can be achieved at that meeting.

But I think, for Maliki, postponing the meeting -- the three-fer meeting with King Abdullah and the president -- had probably two causes. One, the memo might have been part of it. He has to show a certain amount of independence from the United States. He's being criticized by the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has strong popular support in the Shiite slums of Baghdad.

And secondly, there's a real grievance in Baghdad against Jordan's King Abdullah, who recently played host to a radical cleric, a Sunni cleric, Harith al-Dari, who is sometimes associated with al-Qaida, has refused to condemn al-Qaida, and has refused to criticize Sunni radical killing of Shiites.

And so, in Baghdad, the Maliki government has said that Dari shouldn't come back and needs to be investigated, and he was just greeted with honors by King Abdullah, so that also might have had something to do with it.

RAY SUAREZ: Laith Kubba, do you agree with Trudy Rubin's speculation that the venue, Amman, and the convener, King Abdullah, might have had some problems for the Iraqis?

LAITH KUBBA, Former Iraqi Government Spokesman: I really do not know why the meeting was canceled. Iraq has good relationships with Jordan, despite the incident of al-Dari. But without question, canceling it under current conditions does not help. And irrespective of the reason, I think it's just going to make the meeting more difficult and the problems to solve even more distanced.

RAY SUAREZ: What role does the pressure that Prime Minister al-Maliki was getting at home not to meet President Bush play in how the government has to approach any encounter with the Americans right now?

Muqtada al-Sadr's influence

Laith Kubba
Former Iraqi Government Spokesman
The fact the Sadr group has sent a message that they're suspending their participation in the government, it's basically a message to Maliki ... beware, so we can pull out of the government and pull you down with us.

LAITH KUBBA: I think the pressure is real. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Maliki's position is difficult, and it has been weakened.

On one hand, there are high expectations from America, from the U.S. They expect him to deliver on security, in particular. But he is in no position to deliver, despite what the memo had said, because he doesn't have any effective tools. That is the reality.

I think politically he is indebted to Muqtada al-Sadr, and he just cannot crack too harsh on them. So the fact the Sadr group has sent a message that they're suspending their participation in the government, it's basically a message to Maliki, just in case you hear it from President Bush that you should crack on us, beware, so we can pull out of the government and pull you down with us.

RAY SUAREZ: Trudy, what do you make of that walkout of the Sadrist deputies and ministers from the coalition government in Iraq?

TRUDY RUBIN: I think Laith Kubba is right. It is definitely a message to Maliki that he cannot act on the Hadley memo's complaints and crack down on Shiite militias.

And I think there's another factor, as well. Many Shiites, even moderate Shiites who really dislike Muqtada al-Sadr intensely -- and I've talked to a lot of such people, both in the government and on the streets, and even in the clergy in Iraq -- they may dislike Muqtada, but at this point in the sectarian conflict, they feel that his forces are a guarantee to them, since the Americans seem unable to crack down on Sunnis who are blowing up Shiite marketplaces.

And the Iraqi security forces also are unable, and they blame the Americans for that. They say the training and the arming of Iraqi security forces is inadequate. And so, as a result, for Maliki to crack down on Muqtada al-Sadr would alienate, not only Muqtada's forces, which are substantial, but moderate Shiites who feel, "Until you can protect us, you can't take away the militias."

Expectations from al-Maliki

Trudy Rubin
The Philadelphia Inquirer
The Bush administration understands that he's [Nouri al-Maliki] a weak leader, and that's true. His staffing isn't great. He doesn't have the wherewithal to do the things that they want.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Laith Kubba, the president was asked when he was at the NATO meeting, "What do you have to say to Prime Minister Maliki?" And he said, "I want to ask him, what is your strategy for dealing with the violence?" Does he have one?

LAITH KUBBA: I think Maliki recently said that a good deal of the problem of why we have insecurity in Iraq today is to do with the Iraqi politicians. So I do not expect he would ask the U.S., really, for any substantial aid on that front.

I think he's going to highlight the fact it is an internal problem. I do believe the issue of reducing U.S. troops in Iraq is going to be highly controversial, either way. If the troops pull out, it's going to add to the insecurity.

But I do believe the most important issue that needs to be addressed is, what role would Iraq's neighbors play in future Iraq? And this is an issue that concerns the U.S. as much as it concerns Iraq. I think, whatever comes out of meeting, if those parameters for regional involvement are defined, then that would be the most important outcome.

RAY SUAREZ: Trudy, does the Bush administration want Nouri al-Maliki to do things? Is it asking him to do things that he thinks he simply can't do, like disarming the militias that are supported by parties that put him in power?

TRUDY RUBIN: Yes, I think the Bush administration understands that he's a weak leader, and that's true. His staffing isn't great. He doesn't have the wherewithal to do the things that they want.

But he most definitely can't do the primary thing they want, which is to crack down on Muqtada and Shiite militias. The Hadley memo even talked about trying to rearrange his political backing. And right now, in order for him to have enough votes in the national assembly not to be brought down, he depends on Muqtada.

And they're talking about his shaping a different coalition and splitting his Shiite support, getting support from elsewhere. I do think this is unrealistic.

The Americans are also talking, however, about what they can do for him, about trying to strengthen Iraqi security forces, trying to give more aid. I think the bottom line is that they're going to come out of this meeting with Bush and Maliki without much satisfaction, in terms of his being able to crack down more. And it isn't clear whether he will be satisfied with what they have to offer in the way of military aid.

Capabilities of Iraqi government

Laith Kubba
Former Iraqi Government Spokesman
We need to look beyond the Maliki government if we want to salvage Iraq. I do believe that the democratic process, the political process has been a very important achievement, but it did not solve the problems in Iraq.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Trudy Rubin referred to the Hadley memo. When you read it, what did you make of it?

LAITH KUBBA: Well, my first impression, what worried me is that it gives the impression -- if that came from Hadley -- that he really does not read the situation clearly in Baghdad, for a simple reason: He assumes that al-Maliki is either reluctant or too weak to implement these measures.

And the reality is he's incapable. The office of the prime minister, by design, is too weak, and the cabinet is divided between political parties. He has very little authority over cabinet members. And the executive tools of the state, the police and the army, is highly polarized and under control of -- infiltrated by political parties, militias.

So, in reality, you have a big title of a prime minister, but with very little power that comes with it. So something more dramatic needs to be done, other than simply asking the prime minister to shape up a bit.

RAY SUAREZ: Trudy Rubin, do you agree that Stephen Hadley is misreading the situation?

TRUDY RUBIN: I think that, if the United States is counting on making Prime Minister Maliki into something he isn't, which is a strong leader, I totally agree with Laith, that this just isn't going to happen. So, therefore, the strategy cannot be based on that.

And I think that Maliki also represents a Shiite majority that feels that the Americans have crossed over and are giving too much support to the Sunnis now. So that's also a problem. It makes it less likely, even if he were capable -- which he isn't -- that he's going to crack down on Shiite militias, which brings us back to the question that Laith raised, which is: Can an international conference do anything that internal politics inside Iraq can't do?

And, you know, I think this is the great hope now, but it is very complex. And clearly, the Iraqis are very nervous about being pressured from outside. And the question is not just whether Iran can be brought in and do something about Shiites inside Iraq, it's whether Sunni-Arab countries outside can do something to stop the Sunni insurgency.

Unless you have that kind of cooperation, I don't think an international conference will work.

RAY SUAREZ: Laith Kubba, are events threatening to overtake the much-awaited Baker group report that comes out next week?

LAITH KUBBA: Well, I think events will take their own course irrespective of the commission's recommendations and if anybody acted upon them. The current dynamic in Iraq, unfortunately, is unstoppable.

I think we're going to see increased violence in the country, and all the indications are that this civil war will spread and without clear parameters on how neighbors would be involved. In fact, their participation might become counterproductive, unless we have very clear terms on their involvement.

So I do see it getting worse, and I do hope, ultimately, it will get better.

RAY SUAREZ: Very quickly, is the Maliki government, still, though, after all this investment of time and political capital, the only game in town for the Bush administration?

LAITH KUBBA: I think we need to look beyond the Maliki government if we want to salvage Iraq. I do believe that the democratic process, the political process has been a very important achievement, but it did not solve the problems in Iraq. And we need to beef up whatever government in Baghdad with more measures, including maybe a broader government of national unity.

RAY SUAREZ: Laith Kubba, Trudy Rubin, good to talk to you both.