STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Now here in Washington, the new defense secretary is offering some early clues to his views on Iraq. Robert Gates says he'll be traveling to Iraq soon to meet American commanders.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And he says failure there would be a quote, "calamity that would haunt our nation."
INSKEEP: All this week on MORNING EDITION we're describing key players in Iraq. Their actions may determine Iraq's future. Yesterday we learned of a Shiite militia leader, and today we'll talk of another member of Iraq's majority sect. He's Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Our guide all week is NPR's Anne Garrels, whose voice we've heard from Iraq for years. And Anne, who was Nouri al-Maliki before he emerged as prime minister?
ANNE GARRELS: Nouri al-Maliki was one of the leaders of the Dawa party. He had been in exile for many years. He came back to Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
INSKEEP: Was this an opposition party during the time of Saddam?
GARRELS: Absolutely. This was an opposition party which Saddam went after big time, killing many of those who remained in Iraq. And most of the Dawa members had to flee, including Maliki.
INSKEEP: And so when he came back to Iraq, what was his power base?
GARRELS: Well his power base was this long-term opposition party. In many ways, Iraqi analysts say that the Dowa party is a vestige of the past. Many of the members had been killed, but it did come back with a certain amount of stature because of its opposition to Saddam. In some ways it's been eclipsed by people like Moqtada al-Sadr; they stayed in the country, they were underground, they have the grassroots. But Dawa has, you know, a long reputation.
Maliki was not, however, a firebrand politician. He's a - he has his graduate degrees in literature and he was a compromise candidate in the end. Another member of his party had been prime minister and he basically failed, and Maliki got the job by default after four months of wrangling after the elections.
INSKEEP: Now you mention Moqtada al-Sadr, who you told us about yesterday, the Shiite militia leader. And you told us, in fact, that Sadr has become very politically clever and that he was the one who counted heads in the legislature and got the votes to put Maliki in power as prime minister. Given that, is Maliki an independent player?
GARRELS: Maliki has showing he is not an independent player. He is beholden to Sadr in many ways. It is not at all clear that he necessarily shares most of Sadr's views, but he needs him to stay in power.
INSKEEP: And is the system set up in such a way that he could be voted out any time, the way that if, say, a British prime minister could be voted out of office at any time?
GARRELS: Yes, that is quite possible. More likely, there's an awful lot of gossip now in Iraqi circles that there could be a military coup against Maliki. There could be, as you describe, a political coup. But for the moment, the other parties do not have the numbers to vote him out.
INSKEEP: So he has this situation that makes it very difficult for him to go after Shiite militias. Is he beholden in any way to another key force in Iraq - the United States?
GARRELS: He is to some degree, but he has also not been helpful to the United States. Every time the U.S. has gone after death squads - in particular, those allied to Moqtada al-Sadr - Maliki's got in their way. And he increasingly is demanding that he have more and more complete control, ultimately, of the Iraqi military.
INSKEEP: And let's say he wanted to be helpful, does he actually have the power, given the current situation, to be helpful?
GARRELS: No, he does not. However, he has not proven to be a very effective politician simply in terms of running ministries. That's always been a problem with the Shiite governments.
INSKEEP: Does the U.S. have any leverage they can use to force Maliki to do the things that they want him to do, clean up militias and so forth?
GARRELS: They have failed so far.
INSKEEP: Does that mean the answer is no?
GARRELS: Clearly, no.
INSKEEP: Thanks, Anne.
GARRELS: Thank you.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Anne Garrels speaking to us from her home in Connecticut.
MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, we continue our conversations with a profile of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. You can hear the first part of our series about Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr at NPR.org.