(by Eli Lake, NYSun.com) WASHINGTON – With eight days left in a midterm election campaign in which many Republicans have been attacked for their support of the Iraq war, tensions between the Iraqi premier and President Bush are reaching a boiling point.

After a secure 50-minute videoconference between the two leaders on Saturday, a senior aide to Prime Minister al-Maliki told reporters that the Iraqi leader would use Mr. Bush’s political vulnerability to extract a better deal for Iraq. The remarks came after Messrs. Bush and Maliki released a joint post-conference statement promising cooperation on the training of Iraqi security forces and the eventual transfer of authority. The three-paragraph statement was touted on the White House Web site.

The latest skirmish between Messrs. Bush and Maliki could further imperil an American effort to decommission the Shiite-run militias that have been torturing and killing Sunni Arabs in Baghdad at unprecedented levels in the last two months.

While Mr. Bush has praised the Iraqi government’s decision to fire senior Iraqi administrators inside the police forces and Interior Ministry who allegedly contributed to the violence, Mr. Maliki has resisted any vague timetables for taking further steps to shut down the militias. In many cases, those militias are affiliated with the major Shiite parties, such as the Iranian-supported al-Dawa, which was invited into the original Iraqi Governing Council when Baghdad fell in April 2003 and is now led by Mr. Maliki.

Noticeably absent from Saturday’s joint statement was any commitment to disband the militias. Instead, the focus was on meeting Mr. Bush’s goals for when American soldiers can begin to leave Iraq.

America and Iraq’s three common goals include “accelerating the pace of training the Iraqi Security Force, Iraqi assumption of command and control over Iraqi forces, and transferring responsibility for security to the Government of Iraq,” according to the statement.

Yesterday, the Arab press was abuzz with comments from a senior aide to Mr. Maliki, Hassan al-Suneid, who spoke to reporters after the video conference that produced the joint statement. “It’s al-Maliki’s chance to get what he wants. It’s a chance for al-Maliki to force a better deal for himself,” Mr. Suneid said.

The Associated Press quoted Mr. Suneid as saying the prime minister requested the videoconference because of his anger at the American ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad. “The U.S. ambassador is not [L. Paul] Bremer [the former American administrator in Iraq]. He does not have a free rein to do what he likes. Khalilzad must not behave like Bremer but rather like an ambassador,” Mr. Suneid said, according to the AP.

Mr. Maliki may be testing the limits of his relationship with Mr. Bush, the vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, Danielle Pletka, said. “One of the biggest problems with immature democracies is a failure to understand your power relationship to other people. Although I think President Bush respects and appreciates Iraq’s prime minister, Maliki will find a limit to that appreciation if he pushes too hard,” she said. “What the United States is fighting for is in Iraq’s interest, not in George W. Bush’s interest.”

The White House also took notice of Mr. Suneid’s remarks, a senior administration official who requested anonymity said. “We saw them,” the official said. “Let’s just leave it at that.”

One unintended result of Mr. Suneid’s remarks could be to influence a commission created by Congress to study policy options for Iraq to conclude that American troops should exit Iraq in much higher numbers that the president is likely to accept. The panel — led by a secretary of state for President George H.W. Bush, James Baker — is expected to release its findings and recommendations after the November 7 midterm elections. As The New York Sun reported on October 12, the two options the commission is now studying would rule out the prospect of nurturing successive elections or representative government.

Mr. Baker said earlier this month that it will be crucial for the Iraqi government to take steps to calm the violence in Baghdad over the coming weeks and months. One of the first steps appears to be a commitment from Mr. Maliki to do more to defang the Shiite militias running roughshod through the Sunni neighborhoods of Iraq’s capital.

Reprinted here with permission from The New York Sun. Visit the website at NYSun.com.


1.  Why won’t Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki shut down the Shiite Muslim run militias that have been torturing and killing Sunni Muslims in Baghdad?

2.  a) What was the focus of the video conference President Bush had with Prime Minister al-Maliki on Saturday?
b) What was noticeably absent from the joint statement made after the conference?

3.  List the three common goals shared by the United States and Iraq that were explained in the joint statement made after the conference.

4.  a) Who is Hassan al-Suneid?
b) What remarks did he make to reporters after the conference?

5.  a) Who is Zalmay Khalilzad?
b) Why is Prime Minister al-Maliki angry with him?

6.  a) How has the White House responded so far to Mr. al-Suneid’s remarks?
b) Do you think that Mr. al-Makiki’s attempt to “exact a better deal for Iraq” will succeed?  Explain your answer.

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