The Plight of Iraq's Prime Minister

NPR Senior News Analyst Ted Koppel talks about Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — his interests and the United States, where he has been publicly criticized recently by Democrats and Republicans.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

In Iraq, the current violence in the Shiite holy city of Karbala has presented Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with yet another challenge. Already facing political pressure at home, Maliki now has the fight between Shiite factions on his hands.

And as NPR's Ted Koppel notes, Maliki is also hearing quite a bit from American politicians of both parties.

TED KOPPEL: A measure of sympathy may be in order for Iraq's embattled Prime Minister Maliki. He appears to have lost the support of the leading Republican and Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee. The White House is still offering just the barest, most grudging support, but I doubt if President Bush will still be taking Maliki's calls in another month or so.

What seems to bother Mr. Maliki's many American critics is that he's not taking Washington's benchmarks seriously. American men and women are dying to provide the prime minister with time and space to build a functioning democracy and he's doing nothing. Worse than that, he's playing footsie with the Iranians who are: A, not pressuring him to share power with Iraq's Sunni minority; because B, they are fellow Shiites; and most important of all, C, are right next door and not going anywhere. Aye, as the bard would say, there is the rub.

We keep talking about leaving if not immediately then definitely beginning next spring. The simple truth is that America is rapidly running out of patience in so far as nurturing Iraq's internal political development is concerned. Our national interest in the stability of the region, that is the Persian Gulf, is, however, overwhelming and almost infinite. The United States, in other words, is almost sure to leave a significant force in Iraq for years to come, but to serve our interests not Iraq's. Prime Minister Maliki can read the tea leaves as well as the next fellow.

Domestically, his political survival rests with Moqtada al Sadr and his Shiite militia. Regionally, Iran is looking like a more reliable long-range partner than the United States. As for the possibility that events could spiral out of control - drawing Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria into a larger and much more dangerous war, that's where Maliki can count on the United States stepping in. Not, of course, to protect his interests, but to safeguard the continued free passage of oil and natural gas through the Persian Gulf. That's why threatening Maliki or even engineering his replacement will change almost nothing. The realities on the ground will stay essentially the same.

This is Ted Koppel.

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