BAGHDAD — Looking tired and pale but speaking firmly, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki told McClatchy Newspapers Tuesday that he has no intention of resigning despite rising U.S. criticism of his government.
In a 50-minute interview in his office in Baghdad's Green Zone, Maliki strongly defended his tenure and said that he doesn't expect to be forced out. He said his efforts at national reconciliation, not the surge of additional U.S. troops or actions by Iraqi security forces, are responsible for improved security.
He blamed the United States and its early policies in Iraq for the sectarianism that plagues the country, and said he opposed the current U.S. policy of working with former Sunni Muslim insurgent groups who've turned against al Qaida in Iraq because that, too, promotes sectarianism.
Still, he said he isn't yet willing to send Americans home. "Now there is a need for them to stay on," Maliki said. "When the security situation becomes stable, the need will no longer be there."
The interview was Maliki's first with an American news organization since U.S. officials began a drumbeat of criticism against him last week.
Democratic Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan and Hillary Clinton of New York called for the Iraqi parliament to replace him, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq called the government's performance "extremely disappointing" and a new assessment of Iraq by the U.S. intelligence community predicted that Maliki's government would grow even weaker over the next 12 months.
Maliki, however, appeared unbowed.
"I wish to give reassurance: Those who speak about pushing out the present regime, whether Carl Levin or Mrs. Hillary Clinton or the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, who apologized for his remarks — none of these pose a real threat to the continuance of this government and the continuance of the political process," he said.
"As for the Iraqi politicians, our partners in the Iraqi government, they pose no threat even if they called for our resignation, for they have no authority within the democratic frame to depose us."
At one point, asked if Iraq's parliament could agree on anything, let alone replacing him, he laughed and said, "So, the government is safe, then."
He said he has the support of Iraq's supreme Shiite religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, and that he talks to him regularly. He said he'd stopped meeting with fiery Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr, whose supporters in parliament were critical to his election, because Sadr no longer is influential even within his own movement.
"I will not abandon my legal and legitimate responsibility in serving Iraq. Neither do I see any legitimate patriotic reason to resign," Maliki said. "If there is some stagnation in the political process, I have taken the necessary steps to move forward . . . ."
Taking a page from the book of American rhetoric of democracy and tolerance, he said democracy would keep him in power. "I did not come to this position from being a king or a prince, but have reached here through a political process, democracy and national will," he said. "I did not come here by hereditary right, neither is there a hierarchy in Iraq today." He was especially dismissive of any suggestion that groups opposed to him would topple him in a military coup.
"This is a sick mentality, a hangover, from the Baathist era (of Saddam Hussein)," he said. "The era of coups has departed. This country will see no more such overthrows."
But he said he'd welcome being dismissed from office if Iraq's parliament decided to do so.
"Indeed, I would cheer it on because for the first time we would have affected change through political means and not by weapons and tanks," he said.
Throughout the interview, Maliki quietly rejected the most frequently cited criticism of him: that he favors the interests of Shiite Muslims over those of other ethnic groups and has looked the other way as Shiite militias have forced Sunni residents from their Baghdad homes.
He said that his own party, Dawa, the smallest in the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance, had gained the least from his government and portrayed himself as an Iraqi nationalist besieged by political self-interest.
"Truly the political process is a novel experience for Iraqis," he said. "The political parties want to pressure me into concessions, and I want the interest of Iraq to dominate all. I admit if there is a flaw, it is the immaturity of our people regarding the political project and its principles."
He also said that he felt no obligation to protect Sadr and his supporters simply because they provided the votes that put him in power.
"I owe no one for reaching this position of authority," he said. "Yes, they supported me — and I thank them for that — all of them, the Kurds, the Arabs, the Sadrists. But there is no pact between me and any of them that I should present them with anything on the account of the constitution and national interests."
Maliki said he's proven that he's a nationalist by attacking Shiite outlaws, including the Mahdi Army in the south and a Shiite cult, the Soldiers of Heaven, in Najaf. He called the Mahdi Army outlaws and said that elements of Saddam's former regime had infiltrated its ranks.
He showed no allegiance to Sadr. They've met twice, once before he became prime minister and once after, and the true power lies with someone else, he said.
"He has big problems within the movement; that is why I have meetings with leaders from the movement, but not with Moqtada," he said. "Perhaps what is holding back our talks is my firm rejection of the policies adopted by the movement."
Despite Maliki's confidence, the scene at his office made it clear that his survival isn't being debated only in Washington. Maliki's security guards were closely watching a talk show on a wide screen Panasonic television in the lobby. The topic was whether Maliki is the only choice for Iraq, and political pundits were debating whether the prime minister should step down.
When Maliki entered, the guards turned down the volume, but kept the program on.
Maliki's day included an hour-long interview with a Shiite television station and an hours-long meeting with an unnamed Sadrist. When the interview with McClatchy finally began, four hours late, he scolded his staff for making reporters wait.
He said he shares many of the goals the United States has for Iraq. "They speak of a stable Iraq that espouses democracy and human rights, that has good relations with its regional neighbors. It denounces dictatorship and has common interests with the U.S.," he said. "We also want that Iraq should be democratic, constitutional, federal, that it should be built upon principles of justice and equality between its sons; a country peacefully coexisting in its regional environment."
But he said the Americans were trying to take credit for things that his government had accomplished.
"The positive development in the security situation is owed to national reconciliation much more than to our security forces or coalition troops. Some would want to hide this fact, but it is a fact not to be hidden," he said.
He also said he believed the Americans are exacerbating sectarian tensions by building up Sunni groups that have turned on al Qaida and that he would reject incorporating any former insurgent with coalition or Iraqi blood on his hands into the Iraqi security forces.
"The support for the Sunnis is something we do not accept — because we do not agree to support either Sunnis or Shiites," he said.
Normally stiff in public, Maliki was warm and personable in person. He turned stern, however, when asked if he ever regretted becoming prime minister.
"I will never regret a moment in the legitimate service of my country and my people," he said. "I will feel regret only if I feel I have not done enough or if I abandon my responsibility. As for results, this is a job for generations. I will accomplish something, my successor will accomplish something, and his successor will accomplish something until the process is complete."
McClatchy Newspapers Baghdad Bureau Chief Leila Fadel and special correspondent Mohammed al Dulaimy conducted the interview in Arabic and English. You can read an English transcript by special correspondent Sahar Issa at www.mclatchydc.com/iraq/story/19316.html.