Iraqi Prime Minister Torn Between Two Nations

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, seen through a car window on a visit to Kuwait Tuesday.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, seen through a car window on a visit to Kuwait Tuesday. Yasser Al-Zayyat/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Yasser Al-Zayyat/AFP/Getty Images

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is under internal pressure to distance himself from the U.S.-led war effort. At the same time, the U.S. wants him to make more progress in reconciling Iraq's sectarian divisions.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Iraq's Prime Minister is struggling to hold his Shiite-dominated government together. Last week, one of Nouri al-Maliki's coalition partners abandoned the cabinet, charging that Maliki had not distanced himself enough from the American war effort.

This week, Maliki came under pressure from the U.S. to make more progress in reconciling the profound sectarian divisions in Iraq. And the prime minister may not have the political strength to satisfy any of his critics. NPR's Mike Shuster is in Baghdad and joins us now.

And Mike, break down for us essentially what I've just said, what are Maliki's problems?

MIKE SHUSTER: Well, Maliki has problems all across the political spectrum, and I have to say, Renee, these are not new. These are problems that he's had since his government was formed about a year ago. But he's had problems with Moqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand cleric who pulled six cabinet ministers out of the government last week. He's worked to try to bring Sunni politicians in the parliament, the Sunni block, if not his fully into his coalition at least into political discussions for the possibility of reconciliation.

But there's a great deal of distrust between Maliki on the one hand and the Sunnis on the other; in effect, the Shiites on the one hand and the Sunnis on the other. And now he's coming under increasing pressure from the United States to make progress on political reconciliation. This all at a time when the security operation in Baghdad is more than two months underway, expanding, and it seems to have provoked a wave of very bad suicide bombings and car bombs in the capital that put into question just how successful the Baghdad security operations is going. So he's feeling pressure all around.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's go back to Moqtada al-Sadr and his pulling his political people out of the cabinet. What exactly is he trying to do there, bring down the government?

SHUSTER: No. It doesn't seem that he's trying to bring down the government. Those who speak for him have said he's not - they view the United Iraqi Alliance, which is Maliki's political formation, as the best - maybe not the best always, but the best at the moment to govern Iraq. And so they are leaving their 30 members of parliament in that coalition.

It may be that, like a lot of politicians, Moqtada al-Sadr doesn't want the responsibility to govern but he wants that freedom to maneuver politically and criticize. His ministers held six ministries, and therefore they had the responsibility for some quite serious operational work, and it may simply be easier not to have that responsibility, not to shoulder that responsibility.

MONTAGNE: How is this likely to be resolved as Sadr's support, of course, is key to Maliki's survival as prime minister?

SHUSTER: Yes. Well, Sadr's going to continue to support him as far as we know in the parliament so the coalition won't come apart. And this gives Maliki the opportunity to appoint new people to head these ministries. And his spokespeople, as well as people outside the government, hope that he will appoint what they're calling technocrats - specialists in these areas like agriculture and the Health Ministry so that these ministries might be run better. So, in fact, Maliki has an opportunity to run them better and demonstrate to the Iraqi people that he can improve his governing abilities.

MONTAGNE: And just briefly, what is the U.S. role in all of this?

SHUSTER: Well, the United States, particularly after the visit of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates over the weekend, and now with the new U.S. ambassador here, Ryan Crocker, there's a lot of pressure being put on Maliki to take serious - make serious efforts to bridge the sectarian gap. And by this, the Americans want to see progress in the parliament on adopting key legislation that will help to bring about reconciliation. Now, it is in parliament that it is most difficult to get things done. And so, this pressure on Maliki, he may not be able to respond to it very well.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much. NPR's Mike Shuster speaking to us from Baghdad.

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