Memo Reveals Security Council's Doubts on Al-Maliki

In a classified memo to President Bush, National Security Council officials expressed doubts about the ability of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to control violence in his country. The memo notes that al-Maliki relies on extreme Shiite groups for support. Mike Pesca speaks with Michael Gordon, the New York Times reporter who broke the story.

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MIKE PESCA, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Mike Pesca.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

President Bush meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki today in Jordan. In a few minutes we'll talk to our reporter in Jordan's capital, Amman.

PESCA: But first, a classified memo and the impact it could have on today's meeting. It wasn't too long ago that Prime Minister al-Maliki was said to have remarked to the U.S. ambassador, I consider myself a friend of the U.S. but I'm not America's man in Iraq.

Today it became clear that the feeling is very much mutual. A leaked memo from the desk of Stephen Hadley, President Bush's national security advisor, shows that top American officials are skeptical of al-Maliki's ability to lead Iraq into peace and stability.

Michael Gordon of the New York Times broke the story. And Michael, is the feeling that al-Maliki isn't the right man for the job or might it just be the case that the job is all but impossible for any man?

Mr. MICHAEL GORDON (Military Correspondent, New York Times): Well one thing that's striking about the memo, which was based on a trip to Baghdad by Steve Hadley, the national security advisor and several of his aides, is that they're not talking about replacing al-Maliki.

I mean, the concept seems to be that, for better or for worse, he's the Iraqi leader with whom the United States needs to work and are looking for a way to work with him.

However, they're concerned that he may be following more of a Shiite agenda than an Iraqi agenda. What's very interesting though about the memo is that Mr. Hadley and his team came back from Baghdad unclear as to who Mr. al-Maliki really is.

I mean, is he someone who wants to do the right thing but he simply doesn't have the means to carry it out in Iraq because he's thwarted by other elements in the government? Is he simply saying the things he thinks we want to hear but doesn't have any intention of carrying out this program? Or is he misled by some of the people around him who are from the Da'Wah party?

All of these possibilities are laid out in the Hadley memo. They're not sure who al-Maliki really is.

PESCA: Because the prime minister, the leader of Iraq, is in a situation where to be the leader you have to have the support of the Shiites. But on the other hand you still have to be able to stand up to the Shiites. I wonder if anyone can do that. I wonder if the Bush administration thinks anyone can do that.

Mr. GORDON: They're operating on the assumption that it can be done. The concept is you need to put pressure on them but also strengthen him somehow and strengthen his coalition somehow.

PESCA: Tell us some specifics about what's left in the U.S. tool chest.

Mr. GORDON: One thing that's pointed out in the memo is that the Americans should go to the Saudis and try to get them to use their influence with the Saudi tribes in Iraq.

Well you saw that Vice President Cheney was recently in Saudi Arabia. So they seem to be doing that.

There is certainly a military option in the sense that you could increase forces in the Baghdad area. The memo says there are not really enough troops in Baghdad to secure the city.

Well you could do that on a short-term basis as part of a package of political and economic and military steps. Really what they're talking about, though, is trying to reengineer the political coalition in Iraq that supports Mr. al-Maliki.

PESCA: There was also a recommendation in the memo that was Clintonesque. Just like Clinton vowed to have a cabinet that looked like America it said that al-Maliki should reshape his own staff so it looks like Iraq.

Mr. GORDON: In principle he's committed to a unity government. And Iraq is a country that includes Sunnis who used to be the ruling minority. If you're trying to deflate the insurgency there has to be some process of reconciliation.

Well al-Maliki's committed to this in principle. That's what he tells the Americans. But really the theme of the Hadley memo is al-Maliki talks the talk but he doesn't yet walk the walk. And they're looking for very concrete actions for him to take. And they're suggesting actions for him to take.

PESCA: I don't expect you to give up a source or speak to motivations but is it safe to say that the New York Times got this story because someone in the White House wanted to light a fire under al-Maliki?

Mr. GORDON: We did publish the entire memo. And the memo speaks for itself. And I think the memo really is a window into the inner workings of the Bush administration and how it thinks about the problem.

And it's interesting to contrast what they're saying to themselves about al-Maliki with what they say publicly about al-Maliki when they talk to the press core at the White House.

PESCA: Michael Gordon is military correspondent for the New York Times and co-author of “Cobra II.” Thanks very much, Michael.

Mr. GORDON: Thank you.

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Leaked Memo Looms over Bush-Maliki Meeting

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki waves as he arrives in Amman for a summit with President Bush. i i

hide captionIraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki arrives in Amman for a summit with President Bush.

Awad Awad/AFP/Getty Images
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki waves as he arrives in Amman for a summit with President Bush.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki arrives in Amman for a summit with President Bush.

Awad Awad/AFP/Getty Images

In advance of a much-anticipated summit between President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Jordan, a leaked White House memo threatens to disrupt the meeting.

The memo, written by national security adviser Stephen Hadley and sent to President Bush, offers a candid and critical assessment of Iraq's embattled leader. Now it appears that publication of the classified memo's contents by The New York Times may have prompted the cancellation of the first of a pair of formal meetings the president was to hold with Maliki in the capital city of Amman.

Mr. Bush arrived in Jordan Wednesday evening, local time. He was to sit down with the Iraqi Prime Minister and the Jordanian King shortly thereafter. Instead came an announcement that the session would proceed without Maliki.

The White House denies it was a snub, saying that because the Prime Minister had met with Abdullah prior to Mr. Bush's arrival, that it made the multi-lateral session unncecessary.

"It negated the purpose for a meeting of the three of them," top White House aide Dan Bartlett said.

Did the memo have an impact on that decision? "Absolutely not," Bartlett said.

The Hadley memo to President Bush is dated Nov. 8, the week following Hadley's fact-finding trip to Iraq. In it the national security advisor bluntly notes that he has doubts about Maliki's abilities to lead his country.

Hadley writes:

Despite Maliki's reassuring words, repeated reports from our commanders on the ground contributed to our concerns about Maliki's government. Reports of nondelivery of services to Sunni areas, intervention by the prime minister's office to stop military action against Shia targets and to encourage them against Sunni ones, removal of Iraq's most effective commanders on a sectarian basis and efforts to ensure Shia majorities in all ministries — when combined with the escalation of Jaish al-Mahdi's (JAM) [the Arabic name for the Mahdi Army] killings — all suggest a campaign to consolidate Shia power in Baghdad.

Malaki is a Shiite and a member of Iraq's Islamic Dawa Party. Hadley goes on to write that it's not clear if the prime minister is a "witting participant" in an aggressive push by leaders of Iraq's Shiite majority population to consolidate their own power and influence.

From the memo:

"While there does seem to be an aggressive push to consolidate Shia power and influence, it is less clear whether Maliki is a witting participant. The information he receives is undoubtedly skewed by his small circle of Dawa advisers, coloring his actions and interpretation of reality. His intentions seem good when he talks with Americans, and sensitive reporting suggests he is trying to stand up to the Shia hierarchy and force positive change. But the reality on the streets of Baghdad suggests Maliki is either ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions, or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into action."

The memo offers a rare glimpse into the kind of discussions about Iraq that are taking place within a very secretive White House. It also seems to directly contradict the White House's frequent professions of support for Maliki, and the confidence the president has expressed in the Iraqi prime minister. Hadley's views, expressed in confidence and now public, make what had already promised to be a difficult session with Maliki even more so.

The White House has acknowledged that it is not pleased with the level progress the Iraqi government has made in boosting its ability quell the worsening violence that ravages Baghdad and other parts of the country 3 1/2 years after the fall of Saddam Hussein. According to the White House the goal of this meeting in Jordan is to listen to Prime Minister Maliki and to see what he needs to accomplish his goals.

At a news conference in Tallinn, Estonia, two days before heading to Jordan, President Bush said he had some questions he wants to ask Maliki: "What do we need to do to succeed? What is your strategy in dealing with the sectarian violence? I will assure him that we will continue to pursue al-Qaida to make sure that they establish a safe haven in Iraq."

The leaked memo immediately put the White House into quick-response mode in Riga, Latvia, where the president attended a two-day summit of NATO member nations in advance of the trip to Jordan.

"The president has confidence in Prime Minister Maliki," Press Secretary Tony Snow said.

Moments later, a pair senior administration officials, speaking only on the condition of anonymity, downplayed the contents of the Hadley memo. One of these officials argued that the revelations contained in the memo would now require the president to convince the Iraqi leader that the U.S. holds him in high regard.

"The president's conversations on a regular basis with Prime Minister Maliki I think have not only provided the personal relationship that is very important in this case, but also the ability of both men to talk candidly about the challenges that the Maliki government faces," the official said.

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