Hadley's Memo on Maliki Reveals U.S. Analysis

A memo written by National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley that criticizes Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been leaked to The New York Times. The memo also considers the political environment in Iraq. Robert Siegel talks with Nancy Youssef, Baghdad bureau chief for McClatchy newspapers, who has met with Maliki both before and after he took his current post.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

More now on the Iraqi Prime Minister and National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley's leaked memo about him. Nancy Youssef is Baghdad bureau chief for McClatchy newspapers. She's met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki before and after he took his current position and she, like our David Greene, is in Amman for the visit of President Bush. Welcome to the program. You're familiar with the memo - you've seen the memo that was published in the New York Times today?

Ms. NANCY YOUSSEF (Baghdad Bureau Chief, McClatchy Newspapers): Yes, Robert, I have.

SIEGEL: First of all, generally do you think that the national security adviser understands Prime Minister al-Maliki's situation in Baghdad? Do you think he's got it right, essentially?

Ms. YOUSSEF: I'm not sure. I think that he's having a tough time understanding the challenges that al-Maliki is facing and really the core of his beliefs. At one point he proposes that we should encourage al-Maliki to be a part of a moderate political process but in Iraq, moderate means secular. And al-Maliki, who is a member of the Dawa Party, which is a very religious organization, it calls for the Shia religious leadership to direct the government. And so I don't know that he understands the complexity of what it is and how many ways things could sort of splinter and what al-Maliki is balancing both in terms of his beliefs and the pressures that he's under, and the reality on the ground.

SIEGEL: The Stephen Hadley memo includes the following line, speaking of al-Maliki, his intentions are good but the reality on the streets of Baghdad suggests al-Maliki is either ignorant of what's going on, misrepresenting his intentions or his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into action. That is, he's either out of it, lying to the Americans or is just weak. Of those three, would you favor any particular explanation for his actions?

Ms. YOUSSEF: No. I think it's a combination of things, those three and a lot of other things. One could argue that one of the reasons al-Maliki is weak is because the constitution makes him weak. The constitution essentially calls for him to get approval from everybody to do anything.

Is he lying? I don't know. I think he is trying to balance a very fragile and frail political system and so he has a sort of (unintelligible) militia back at him because there aren't enough - Iraqi security forces aren't strong enough.

But if he gets rid of the militia, he weakens himself. And so again, there are just a lot of intricate things that are involved but I don't know that the memo really reflected - it's not as linear on the ground, I don't think, as it appears to be in the memo.

SIEGEL: Here's another line from the memo. It says that even if al-Maliki has the right intentions, he may simply not have the political or security capabilities to take the steps which had been mentioned earlier in the memo which risk alienating his narrow Sadrist political base, meaning Moqtada al-Sadr, the militia leader. Is that observation fair, that he has a narrow base among the supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr?

Ms. YOUSSEF: Well, the problem is that the Sadr base is growing more and more every day as the security situation worsens. People who never would have thought of themselves as militiamen join because the Sadr City bombing killed 200 people or because they feel attacked by the Sunnis, or because they feel that they are vulnerable. That is, they're not sort of militia at the heart but they feel vulnerable in their own streets and their own neighborhoods. So I think it's dangerous to sort of call it narrow because it's changing and evolving and growing. Moqtada's base is growing, even among moderate Shia. So I think it's a hard assertion to make.

SIEGEL: How do you think people in the streets of Baghdad, say, or for that matter elsewhere in Iraq, regard al-Maliki? Is it as a weak leader in the sense that Stephen Hadley sees him, as either weak or constrained, whatever the explanation might be? Or is he seen otherwise by the Iraqis?

Ms. YOUSSEF: You know, I think Iraqis in general, I think there's a real feeling that they want somebody, anybody, to come in and take control of their country. To take back control of the streets. To bring back law and order, one that doesn't involve torture and everything else that Saddam Hussein did but allows them the freedom to go to school, to go to work, to go out at night. So I almost think it's beyond al-Maliki. I think people are just really hungry for someone to lead them and to give them a sense of freedom.

SIEGEL: Well, Nancy Youssef, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. YOUSSEF: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Nancy Youssef, who is Baghdad bureau chief for McClatchy newspapers. She is in Amman, Jordan for the visit of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to meet there in the Jordanian capital with President Bush.

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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

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

itoggle caption 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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