U.S. Influence Over Iraq's Government Wanes

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Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki publicly took U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill to task for what he called overstepping his diplomatic role. The most recent disagreement centered on Malaki's support for the decision to ban more than 500 candidates in next month's parliamentary elections for alleged ties to Saddam Hussien's Baath party. The U.S. had been trying to get the banned candidates reinstated.


Politics in Iraq got even more complicated yesterday. An Iraqi court banned two major Sunni candidates from the upcoming national elections, much to the displeasure of the U.S. That sort of thing is happening more often these days as the American influence over Iraqi affairs is on the wane.

NPRs Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Baghdad.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Last week, Iraqs prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, publicly took U.S. ambassador Christopher Hill to task for what he called overstepping his diplomatic role here. The most recent disagreement centered around Malikis support for the decision to ban more than 500 candidates in next months parliamentary elections for alleged ties to Saddam Husseins Ba'ath Party. Critics say the move was an attempt by Shiite parties in power to remove political rivals ahead of the vote. The United States had been trying to get the banned candidates reinstated, but it said publicly that it fears the exclusions could threaten the credibility of the upcoming vote, especially in Sunni areas.

Ever since the U.S.-led invasion, the United States has played - at varying times -the roles of both quiet mediator and visible bully in Iraq's internal disputes. But, says Joost Hiltermann with the International Crisis Group, there is less tolerance for any American pressure these days.

Mr. JOOST HILTERMANN (International Crisis Group): It incurs a wave of Iraqi nationalism against outside interference and also, it fails. And the moment it fails, the Iraqi public sees that and sees that, by contrast, Iran is being much more effective in its own maneuvering. And I think it sort of ratifies what is going to be the future situation, which is that Iraq is falling within the Iranian sphere of influence and leaving the Americans behind.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And their Arab allies. Heider Allahbatti(ph) is one of Maliki's key advisers. He reserves his harshest criticism for the region's Arab governments and their effect on U.S. policy in Iraq.

Mr. HEIDER ALLAHBATTI (Advisor to Maliki): She is a newly established democracy in Iraq; it doesn't suit a lot of Arab regimes. So I think it's an advantage of these regime to bring dictatorship back to Iraq. And they try to convince U.S. administration that Iraq is not suited for democracy; it's suited for a role of dictatorship of one man, which is wrong. And we are afraid that these regimes are now influencing U.S. policy in the region.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But even the current Iraqi government's rivals are unhappy with how the U.S. has managed the current political turmoil. Saleh al-Mutlaq is the most prominent of the banned candidates. The appeals court, which was until Thursday reviewing his case, decided to uphold his exclusion, along with most of the other 177 cases that were under review.

It is a decision that could throw the elections into disarray. In a recent interview with NPR, Mutlaq said that the United States had done little to help the process. He said an attempt by Vice President Joe Biden to diffuse the de-Baathification crisis was ineffectual.

Mr. SALEH AL-MUTLAQ: He was so weak in Iraq, and he weakened us because of his position. We would love to see that he did not come to Iraq in such a time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mutlaq says it's not that America is no longer influential; it seems to no longer be interested.

Mr. MUTLAQ: Actually, I'm disappointed. I would rather like to see them leaving now if they are going to behave in such a way in the future. Let us solve the problem between us. If they cannot protect us, let us rely on ourself to protect ourself.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: U.S. officials say the anti-American rhetoric is a product of the upcoming elections.

Mr. PHILIP CROWLEY (Spokesman, U.S. State Department): As happens in our country, there's a lot of posturing going on.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Still, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley says American clout here should be diminishing.

Mr. CROWLEY: The U.S. influence should be waning in Iraq. You know, this is a major year for Iraq, where we begin to see, you know, Iraq take over more and more responsibility for its security, for its economy. And the relationship between the United States and Iraq transitions from one that was dominated by a military relationship, to one that is normal.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And Iraq, says Crowley, should be prepared to no longer get preferential American treatment.

Mr. CROWLEY: The United States will have the same kind of relationship with Iraq that it has with other countries in the region or around the world.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.

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