A Bub­bling Stew in Iraq

Why Nouri al-Ma­liki Is Block­ing an In­ter­na­tional Con­fer­ence

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook -

U.S. ef­forts to bring the world’s great pow­ers to­gether with Iraq’s quar­rel­some neigh­bors to sta­bi­lize the gov­ern­ment in Bagh­dad have pre­dictably run into strong op­po­si­tion. Didn’t Pres­i­dent Bush warn Jim Baker and Lee Hamil­ton that Syria and Iran were not in­ter­ested in stop­ping the tur­moil in Iraq?

Well, yes, he did. But the source of crip­pling op­po­si­tion to a high­pro­file in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ence in Turkey this month turns out not to have been fore­seen by the pres­i­dent or by his crit­ics on the Iraq Study Group, chaired by Baker and Hamil­ton. The gath­er­ing be­ing pushed by Sec­re­tary of State Con­doleezza Rice has been blocked for weeks by Nouri al-Ma­liki, the sur­pris­ingly strong-willed prime min­is­ter of Iraq.

Ma­liki has his own rea­sons, which I’ll ex­plain in a mo­ment. But his ini­tial sharp de­fi­ance of Wash­ing­ton’s wishes — and of the con­ven­tional diplo­matic wis­dom that meet­ing is al­ways bet­ter than not meet­ing — car­ries larger mean­ings. It again shows that Amer­ica’s abil­ity to pro­duce de­sired out­comes in the Mid­dle East — while not yet ex­hausted — is wan­ing rapidly as the Demo­cratic ma­jor­ity in Congress chal­lenges Bush’s author­ity and the Amer­i­can oc­cu­pa­tion of Iraq en­ters its fifth drain­ing year.

The pol­icy dis­ar­ray in Wash­ing­ton con­vinces many Iraqis that the United States is on its way out sooner rather than later. “The gov­ern­ment must now pre­pare for the day af­ter, rather than sim­ply try­ing to de­lay it,” says one Iraqi politi­cian.

Ma­liki and his for­eign min­is­ter, Hosh­yar Ze­bari, have in­sisted for months that Iraq’s neigh­bors should send se­nior of­fi­cials to Bagh­dad if they want to hold a meet­ing that would help the gov­ern­ment. The Iraqi po­si­tion was re­peated, in diplo­matic form, at a prepara­tory meet­ing of re­gional am­bas­sadors in Bagh­dad in early March.

But for po­lit­i­cal as well as se­cu­rity rea- sons, Saudi Ara­bia, Jor­dan, Egypt and most other states in the re­gion have stonewalled Iraq’s pro­posal. So have France, Ger­many, Rus­sia and other mem­bers of the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil or the Group of Eight in­dus­trial na­tions, which are also on Rice’s in­vi­ta­tion list for Turkey.

Wash­ing­ton has fo­cused in­tense pres- sure on Ma­liki, who may yet agree to send Ze­bari to Is­tan­bul rather than see the con­fer­ence aborted. The rea­sons for his re­sis­tance were ex­plained in th­ese terms by an Iraqi of­fi­cial who re­quested anonymity in or­der to speak frankly:

“Why should we go to a meet­ing to be ganged up on by Euro­pean and Arab coun­tries that were against the lib­er­a­tion of Iraq to be­gin with? Why should it be held on the soil of a coun­try that threat­ens and slights Iraqis in­stead of help­ing them?”

Turkey’s mil­i­tary stands pre­pared to in­vade north­ern Iraq to de­stroy Kur­dish guer­rilla camps or to take con­trol of the dis­puted city of Kirkuk, if cir­cum­stances war­rant. Ankara has also point­edly re­fused to deal with Iraqi Pres­i­dent Jalal Tal­a­bani, an eth­nic Kurd who as­serts that his home town of Kirkuk is Kur­dish, or with the re­gional Kur­dish gov­ern­ment of Massoud Barzani. Ankara’s non-di­a­logue pol­icy has led to in­ter­rup­tions of the move­ment of pe­tro­leum sup­plies across the Turk­ish border in re­cent weeks.

Only Iran has un­equiv­o­cally said it would at­tend a min­is­te­rial meet­ing in Bagh­dad. Ira­nian of­fi­cials sug­gest that Sunni Arab regimes fear that send­ing their high-level politi­cians to Bagh­dad would un­der­cut the sup­port they pro­vide for the Sunni in­sur­gents fight­ing U.S. troops and try­ing to desta­bi­lize Ma­liki’s un­steady coali­tion gov­ern­ment of Kur­dish and sec­tar­ian Shi­ite par­ties.

Such is the stew of lo­cal ten­sions, griev­ances and coun­ter­vail­ing forces that out­siders fre­quently over­look in draw­ing up grand mil­i­tary or diplo­matic de­signs — or even “bench­marks” and “dead­lines” — for Iraqis to carry out. Baker, Hamil­ton & Co. seem to have un­der­stood such re­gional ten­sions and bar­ri­ers to mean­ing­ful di­a­logue no bet­ter than Bush and Rice.

Most Iraqis are still deeply sus­pi­cious of the Sunni-ruled coun­tries, in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions and, for that mat­ter, U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tions that sold them out to pla­cate or ne­glect Sad­dam Hus­sein over three decades. Nor can they or the Arab regimes trust Iran’s in­ten­tions. Iraqis have earned the right to look skep­ti­cally at for­eign gov­ern­ments that have sud­denly come to “help” them.

For the ironic of mind, Ma­liki’s stub­born stance re­calls the dan­gers of an­swered prayers. Fed up with his va­porous in­de­ci­sive­ness, U.S. diplo­mats helped dump Ibrahim al-Ja­fari, Ma­liki’s pre­de­ces­sor (and ide­o­log­i­cal ally), and bring the more force­ful Ma­liki to of­fice last year.

Bush praised Ma­liki as a “strong leader” when the two met in Novem­ber. Now he deals with the con­se­quences of con­jur­ing up a de­ci­sion maker who de­cides in ways that the pres­i­dent may well not like, much less be able to con­trol.

BY SAMIR MIZBAN — AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Prime Min­is­ter Nouri al-Ma­liki at a brief­ing last month.

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