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Cordesman: Iraqi Prime Minister Hampers Progress

Iraq

Hear Anthony Cordesman with the Center for Strategic and International Studies

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Steve Inskeep is on assignment. I'm John Ydstie.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

It's no secret that American officials have long been frustrated with Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, but it was just this week that congressional leaders stepped up their calls for a replacement. Michigan Senator Carl Levin, returning from a visit to Iraq, called the Maliki government, quote, "nonfunctional."

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): I hope that the Iraqi assembly, when it reconvenes in a few weeks, will vote the Maliki government out of office and will have the wisdom to replace it with a less sectarian, more unifying prime minister and government.

MONTAGNE: That's Democratic Senator Carl Levin. Yesterday, President Bush responded to those concerns, and he stopped short of a full endorsement of the Iraqi leader.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The fundamental question is, will the government respond to the demands of the people? And if the government doesn't demand - respond to the demands of the people, they will replace the government. That's up to the Iraqis to make that decision, not American politicians.

MONTAGNE: Although American politicians aren't the only ones expressing concern. Army Chief of Staff General George Casey said on a recent trip to Iraq that he was taken aback by U.S. military commanders' frustration with the prime minister.

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies visited Iraq last month and said he encountered similar complaints.

Mr. ANTHONY CORDESMAN (Military Analyst, Center for Strategic and International Studies): I think many intermediate commanders in the field that have been dealing with the prime minister's office have had problems in terms of its use of command authority to favor Shiites over Sunnis, its reluctance to act against sectarian cleansing. I also heard it from Iraqi officers, who often blame the prime minister's office for delays in everything from pay to ammunition. So this is not simply a U.S. reaction.

MONTAGNE: Although there have been questions about Maliki's leadership for rather a long time. The distinction here seems to be that the criticisms are being voiced by military people. What has changed?

Mr. CORDESMAN: Well, one problem is that people keep referring to the surge. And what's really changed is not a relatively limited increase in U.S. troops, but you now have very aggressive operations in the field by troops that stay in the field, that don't simply win but hold. You have Iraqi and U.S. commanders who are much more dependent on getting a rapid response from the Iraqi government.

You also have had, over this last four months, this sudden surge of support in Anbar and elsewhere against al-Qaida. And being able to take that awakening, these anti-al-Qaida groups, and bring them into the police force, bring them into local security forces, sort of cement what has been an anti-al-Qaida movement as a pro-Iraqi government movement has been blocked time and again by failures on the part of the prime minister's office to act. And to go out and put your life on the line, or the life of your troops on the line, every day and get no real active response is not something you ignore.

MONTAGNE: Is the idea that Maliki is too weak, or that he's actively working against political compromises and reconciliation?

Mr. CORDESMAN: I think that there are elements of both, depending on who you talk to. People are often careful to use the term the prime minister's office, rather than blame the man. But people do see him as too reluctant to act, to take chances to move forward, particularly in dealing with the Sunnis. Others see his office as tied to Shiite sectarian cleansing. They see him as reluctant, as blocking promotions of Sunnis. You also see a particular concern that this awakening by the tribes is something that has to be cemented and that it's really the prime minister's office that's blocking this.

MONTAGNE: Although, is there an argument that the prime minister and the prime minister's office has some legitimate foundation for being concerned down the road that this awakening in Anbar could turn on them or the government?

Mr. CORDESMAN: I think that no one can deny in Iraq that the other factions might turn on them. This isn't even a matter of Arab Sunni, Arab Shiite, and Kurd. Down in the southeast, you see the Shiites feuding with the Shiites. So everyone fears everyone else, and that's one of the problems in moving forward.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. CORDESMAN: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Anthony Cordesman is a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.

When NPR's Jamie Tarabay recently spoke with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, he described the difficult situation in Iraq along with some successes. You can hear that interview at npr.org.

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