Prime Minister’s failure may push United States to exit

By Anne Gearan, WASHINGTON, AP

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was supposed to be the Bush administration’s ticket out of Iraq — a strong leader who could rap knuckles among Iraq’s squabbling factions and speed the day when an independent Iraq could fend for itself. After a disappointing 1-1/2 years in office, al-Maliki may still represent an opportunity for exit — for those who see him as the personification of political paralysis and sectarian suspicion that the continued labors of U.S. troops cannot change.

“This frustration could become an exit strategy by default,” said Carlos Pascual, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution study center in Washington. “It’s, ‘The Iraqis didn’t hold up their end of the bargain, and so it’s time to leave.”’

Pascual said that argument skips over the question of whether President George W. Bush made bad decisions and hung unrealistic expectations on al-Maliki or anyone else who might try to unify warring Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds before they are ready to stop their sectarian and ethnic battles and compromise.

Nonetheless, al Maliki could prove a convenient scapegoat in Washington, especially if the perception should persist that even the White House has lost enthusiasm for him.

Democrats eager to quit the war quickly, congressional Republicans increasingly at odds with Bush over Iraq and GOP presidential candidates looking for ways to part company with an unpopular Republican president can point to al-Maliki as a bad gamble.

With a September deadline for a U.S. progress report on Iraq, the Bush administration had hoped to show that the al-Maliki coalition used a protective cushion of additional U.S. troops finally to pass symbolic laws such as one governing the sharing of oil profits.

There are now 162,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, of which 30,000 have arrived since February as part of Bush’s revised strategy to stabilize Baghdad and push Iraqi leaders to build a national unity government.

Military efforts to stabilize the country have made progress in recent months, but political progress has lagged. The watershed September report will begin a political debate in earnest about how long the additional troops should remain and when others might be redeployed or withdrawn.

On Wednesday, the Democratic presidential front-runner, Sen. Hillary Clinton, joined Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, also a Democrat, to urge the Iraqi legislature to get rid of al-Maliki.

Clinton voted in 2002 to authorize military action in Iraq and has since become a critic of the conflict. She traveled to Iraq just before launching her presidential campaign in January and expressed reservations about al-Maliki’s leadership upon her return.

Washington speculation about al-Maliki’s fate heated up Monday when Levin, back from a trip to Iraq, called al-Maliki’s fractured coalition government “nonfunctional.”

Bush and the U.S. ambassador in Iraq, Ryan Crocker, gave blunt assessments of political stagnation in Baghdad a day later, and the president said it would be up to the Iraqi people to decide if their government deserved to be replaced.

After al-Maliki replied that he would “pay no attention” to his American critics and if necessary “find friends elsewhere,” Bush tried to smooth things over.

Bush called al Maliki a “good man with a difficult job,” and said he supports the Shiite leader. The White House added the line to a speech arguing the case for remaining in Iraq despite doubts and frustrations.

“As long as I am commander in chief we will fight to win,” Bush said to heavy applause from the an audience of U.S. veterans. “I’m confident that we will prevail.”

Al-Maliki, a Shiite seen by his rivals as too sectarian and even by some of his partisans as too weak, has been unable to deliver political reconciliation or any of the big legislative markers that the Bush administration has set.

“He hasn’t really addressed even the two or three really critical things he could have maybe done something about,” said Frederick Barton, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ international security program.

Bush has stuck by al-Maliki as U.S. support for the war dropped and violence spread among the major Iraqi sectarian and ethnic groups. He made a point of rallying to al-Maliki last year, when a leaked memo from his White House national security adviser questioned al-Maliki’s abilities.

Bush administration officials freely express dissatisfaction with al Maliki’s performance, and that of other Iraqi politicians, as Crocker did on Tuesday, but there seems to be little appetite among U.S. officials to replace him.

Alternative candidates might be even less effective, or would take months to form the alliances needed to get something done. The process of picking a new leader could also be a repeat of the agonizing months of bickering that sapped U.S. and Iraqi support for the new government early last year.