Iraqi prime minister's isolation growing

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, harshly criticized by Washington politicians last week for failing to bring about reconciliation among Iraq's political and ethnic factions, is increasingly isolated among his own countrymen as well.

He has lost the Shiite Muslim power base that brought him to power. Analysts say his support among Kurds could easily vanish, too, if the Kurds receive the go-ahead from the Bush administration. Nearly half of his cabinet ministers have resigned their posts or are refusing to participate in cabinet meetings.

Many say he is on his last legs as prime minister.

"He has to resign," said Salim Abdullah, a leading member of the Iraqi Accordance Front, the Sunni alliance that officially withdrew its ministers from the government earlier this month. "We have nothing against Maliki as a person but there are reasons he failed. His advisors are yes men and he doesn't have the authority to do anything."

Whether Maliki will actually be removed from office won't be known until Iraq's parliament comes back from its summer break next month. Replacing him may be difficult.

Maliki was a compromise candidate when he was named prime minister 16 months ago after weeks of indecision. No popular consensus candidate is evident and Iraq's fractious parliament is, if anything, more divided than it was in the heady months after the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite coalition, almost won a majority in Iraq's 2006 elections.

A prolonged standoff over Maliki's fate or the selection of a new prime minister would hardly improve government performance, which U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker last week called "extremely disappointing."

It is clear now that Crocker and U.S. military commander Gen. David Petraues will offer little hope of political reconciliation in Iraq when they appear before Congress in mid September to provide their assessment of the situation here. A report by the country's intelligence community, made public on Thursday, said it was likely Maliki would get even weaker in the next 12 months.

Maliki is leader of the Dawa party, a Shiite religious party that is the smallest and least powerful of Iraq's Shiite alliance. He was selected as prime minister only after the supporters of firebrand cleric Muqtada al Sadr agreed to back him over the candidate of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, headed by Abdul Aziz al Hakim. Maliki won the balloting among the Shiite parties by one vote.

The Sadrists, who make up the largest single bloc in parliament, have broken with Maliki over the prime minister's seeming endorsement of U.S. actions against Sadr's Mahdi Army militia. They've withdrawn their six cabinet ministers and now liken Maliki to Saddam Hussein.

On Friday the Sadrists threatened to bring criminal charges against Maliki, who they said was personally responsible for a U.S. raid in Baghdad's Shoala neighborhood that they say killed 20 people, including women and children. The U.S. has placed the death toll at eight, saying the dead were rebels who'd fired on American troops.

Maliki "is commander in chief of the Iraq forces and upon him lies the responsibility of protecting civilians," said Nassar al Rubaie, the head of the Sadrist bloc in parliament. "We see the Iraqi government has weakened and submitted to the occupation ... It's comparable to the bloody regime of Saddam."

Analysts searching for an explanation to why Maliki's government is in such disarray cite a number of factors. One American military officer said Maliki still behaves as if he were an opposition leader, not the head of government. He's surrounded himself with inept yes men in a reflection possibly of Dawa's long years as an illegal and underground political party.

Maliki may be philosophically opposed to making the kinds of concessions U.S. officials feel are necessary to bring about Sunni-Shiite reconciliation. Even before he became prime minister, Maliki was known as a hard-line Shiite. Now as prime minister, he still fears that Shiites, finally on top after centuries of oppression, will lose power to Sunnis, U.S. officials here say. Many say they are still uncertain whether Maliki wants an Iraq where Sunnis and Shiites would be treated as equals.

Even in the best of worlds, Maliki was dealt a difficult hand. Iraq's government was cobbled together from a variety of factions and his cabinet ministers were forced upon him by political parties, rather than being people Maliki himself had selected.

Sadiq al Rikabi, a top Maliki advisor who traveled with him to Syria last weekend, said it's unfair for Iraq's political stasis to be blamed on one man. In the new democracy the crisis must be blamed on all political players.

"This is not a dictatorship," he said. "This is a democracy and this political crisis must be dealt with by all the political leaders, not one person"

Even Maliki's detractors agree. The failure, said Ali Hatem al Suleiman, the prince of the Dulaim, Iraq's largest Sunni tribe, lies in a system designed to remain in political paralysis as each sect and ethnic group defend their own interests.

"Maliki is like a pen with two closed fists around it. Every finger is a party, how can the pen write?" he asked.

Still, many Iraqis predict that Maliki's premiership is nearing its end. One official said his advisors are looking for other government positions, predicting their impending unemployment.

Analysts and some Iraqi officials say that Maliki is a convenient scapegoat for a failed American political project in Iraq.

"Somebody has to take the fall for a failed surge," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst now with the Brookings Institution, a center-left policy think tank in Washington. "Mr. Maliki is a convenient scapegoat to blame...Of course, it begs the question what are we going to do to replace Maliki. There are no obvious replacements."