ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
So, where does the past week of fighting in Iraq leave the al-Maliki government, the Mahdi army of Moqtada al-Sadr, and the U.S. in Iraq?
Well, answers now from two analysts. Iraqi-born Adeed Dawisha is a political scientist at Miami University of Ohio.
Welcome to the program once again, professor Dawisha.
Professor ADEED DAWISHA (Political Science, Miami University): Good afternoon.
SIEGEL: And Ghassan al-Atiyyah directs a Baghdad think tank called the Iraq Foundation for Development and Democracy. He joins us from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, where he is today.
Welcome to the program, Mr. Atiyyah.
Mr. GHASSAN AL-ATIYYAH (Director, Iraq Foundation for Development and Democracy): Thank you.
SIEGEL: And Ghassan Atiyyah first, Prime Minister Al-Maliki evidently opted for a showdown with Moqtada al-Sadr. In that showdown, who won?
Mr. AL-ATIYYAH: The way I see it, if the government took the initiative and he failed to finish the job, then Moqtada al-Sadr definitely will come out a winner. In the case of Mahdi army and Moqtada al-Sadr, actually, at the beginning he felt that al-Maliki owes his position as a prime minister to the Sadr group. In addition to that, he was playing the balancing act between them and the Hakim family.
SIEGEL: The other - the family leading the other big Shiite political party in Baghdad.
Mr. AL-ATIYYAH: And in this sense, he apparently took side of the Hakim and tried to launch this attack. This attack - if he succeeded and he finished the army and controlled Basra, then everyone would applaud him and that would be great victory. He faked Iraq. He blew it.
SIEGEL: Adeed Dawisha, the judgment from Ghassan Atiyyah is Prime Minister al-Maliki quote, "he blew it." You agree?
Prof. DAWISHA: Well, I - in general terms, I agree. But this was not a knockout blow to either of the two. I would like to add if one is - wants to see any silver lining for al-Maliki, the fact that Maliki finally was willing to take on the militia, he might get one or two positive responses from the people.
But on the whole, there is no doubt that the Mahdi army and Moqtada came out better from this operation than Maliki.
SIEGEL: Well, in that case, Ghassan Atiyyah, how did the United States, which provided air support for the Iraqi security forces, how does this affect the U.S. role in Iraq now?
Mr. AL-ATIYYAH: This is the puzzle. First, the New York Times said that Maliki didn't consult with us. Stephen Hadley said we knew about it.
SIEGEL: The national security advisor, Stephen Hadley.
Mr. AL-ATIYYAH: That we knew about it. Then came what is - President Bush was saying that this is a defining moment. If a defining moment end in a stalemate, that is no doubt the prestige of the government is at stake.
SIEGEL: Well, what do you think about that equation, Adeed Dawisha, that this was, in essence, a stalemate? If it indeed was a defining moment, as President Bush says, it defines the conflict as a stalemate.
Prof. DAWISHA: I think that is absolutely correct. And I don't know why the president would say a thing like that before he could see what the results were. The problem for the Americans is that they are stuck with Maliki. If you look around, there is no real candidate that can take over from him given that any candidate who would come in has to be from the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite coalition, which itself is in tatters at the moment. The Sadrists who had supported him have now withdrawn their support. The Hakim group, the Islamic Revolution and the Badr group who were against him are now for him.
If you look around you, he seems to be the only compromise candidate. And if he were to resign or if he were to be pushed out, we might have a huge constitutional problem there with maybe months before anybody can agree on a candidate.
SIEGEL: Has this been a case of the Iraqi prime minister taking the initiative, getting in over his head and knowing that the U.S. has to defend him, that the U.S. must support him because it has no alternative? Is that Prime Minister al-Maliki's leverage here at this point, Ghassah al-Atiyyah?
Mr. AL-ATIYYAH: At the beginning, I thought this might be the case - it's what I read in the New York Times, that he didn't consult them. But later, with the Hadley statement and then with the president endorsement, things are different. And the real essence of the fight in the south is not ideological. It is power struggle between al-Hakim family and al-Sadr family — who should be the overall lord of the Shia in the south.
SIEGEL: Adeed Dawisha, you agree, the U.S. was sort of drawn into what amounts to clan warfare in the south of Iraq between two different claimants to leadership of the Shiite community?
Prof. DAWISHA: That's a reasonable assessment of what's happening in Basra. And apart from siding with al-Hakim against the Mahdi, which I'm sure is right, I think there is also this kind of notion that the state has to take on this militia. He had been, I think, seduced by the fact that he can command 30 to 40,000 of these newly kind of minted soldiers by the Americans. And he felt that with that force, he can go into Basra and defeat the Mahdi army and come out as a new hero. So there is a kind of combination of motivations that go beyond involving himself in an intra-militia conflict.
SIEGEL: Well, thanks to both of you for helping to enlighten us about what's been going on in Iraq for the past several days.
Adeed Dawisha, professor of political science at Miami University of Ohio, and Ghassan al-Atiyyah, director of the Iraq Foundation for Development and Democracy, thanks to both of you.
Prof. DAWISHA: Thank you.
Mr. AL-ATIYYAH: Thank you. (Speaking in foreign language)
Prof. DAWISHA: (Speaking in foreign language)
Mr. AL-ATIYYAH: (Speaking in foreign language)
Prof. DAWISHA: Bye. Take care. Bye-bye.
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