One day in fall 2007, President George W. Bush joined Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in a video conference to sign a “declaration of principles” on the future of Iraqi-U.S. relations. As Bush scrawled his name, al-Maliki in Baghdad just passed his pen over his copy, pretending to sign.
At the last minute, al-Maliki had decided not to sign because, he said, he had not read the document’s final wording, but he did not mention this to Bush, who had no idea his counterpart’s pen had not touched paper. A U.S. official in the room noticed, however, and as soon as Bush’s image vanished from the screen, accosted an al-Maliki aide, saying, “Don’t screw with the president of the United States.”
The incident that day nearly seven years ago typified the vexing and volatile relationship between the Iraqi prime minister and his U.S. sponsors. Events were often not what they seemed nor did they work out as they were supposed to. Al-Maliki rose from obscurity to power in part with U.S. help, but first Bush and then President Obama found him to be a mercurial and often unconstructive ally who caused as many headaches as he solved.
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Now as al-Maliki reaches a moment of truth, either stepping down or trying to preserve power, Obama and the U.S. government are trying to maneuver the Iraqi leader one last time in hopes of replacing him with a more reliable figure who can pull that fractious country together and work more collaboratively with Washington.
For weeks, the president and his aides have said it was not their role to tell Iraq who its leader should be, but they made eminently clear Monday that it was time for al-Maliki to step aside in favor of Haider al-Abadi, a member of the same Shiite party nominated by President Fouad Massoum to be the next prime minister.
Obama and Vice President Joe Biden each called al-Abadi to congratulate him, and when the president went before cameras in Martha’s Vineyard to repeat that publicly, he pointedly did not mention al-Maliki’s name. When a reporter asked if he had a message for al-Maliki, the president walked away. That was the message.
Al-Maliki, a relatively little-known Shiite politician who spent much of Saddam Hussein’s reign outside of Iraq, was a surprise choice for prime minister in 2006 after months of deadlock. Bush was anxious for the Iraqis to finally pick a prime minister who would be more decisive than Ibrahim al-Jaafari, and Bush’s ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, was seen as supportive of al-Maliki.
The Americans knew little about him. At first, they kept using the wrong first name for him — calling him Jowad, which was a nom de guerre — until al-Maliki himself corrected them.
But Bush flew to Iraq to meet him and “sensed an inner toughness,” which was what he was looking for.
“You have to understand Jaafari to understand Maliki,” Jeffrey said. “With Jaafari, we couldn’t get him to make a decision at all. With Maliki, he was a better leader, at least at the beginning.”
It proved complicated, however. By that fall, Americans were frustrated with al-Maliki, who resisted reining in Shiite militias.
Stephen Hadley, the president’s national-security adviser, told Bush in a classified memo that leaked that al-Maliki was either “ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions” or incapable of taking action.
Eventually, Bush doubled down on al-Maliki anyway with a risky troop surge and made a point of holding weekly video conferences with him in an effort to mentor him in the art of coalition politics.
But the fake-signing episode underscored U.S. frustrations. Even though al-Maliki later signed the agreement for real, when Iraqi foes plotted to push him out, some in the White House agreed that he should go, including Brett McGurk, the official who had confronted the Maliki aide about the fake signing and who now works for Obama.
Bush rejected the idea but sent Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Baghdad to tell al-Maliki to shape up.
“You’re a terrible prime minister,” she told al-Maliki. “Without progress and without an agreement, you’ll be on your own, hanging from a lamppost.”
Al-Maliki remained impulsive. He ordered a hasty, haphazard military operation against Shiite militias in Basra that was very nearly a disaster but with last-minute U.S. help succeeded. Al-Maliki, observed Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., “went from being docile to being John Wayne.”
When Obama came into office, the relationship changed again. He thought Bush was too directly involved and did not continue the weekly conversations with al-Maliki. Instead, he left it to Biden to manage the prime minister.
Biden concluded that major moves, like passing a law on oil revenue sharing, “couldn’t come in one fell swoop,” said a senior administration official, who insisted on anonymity to discuss diplomacy. “So there was more focus on incremental, doable steps that he could take. And we had some success in that, more on some issues than others.”
But in the vice president’s phone calls with al-Maliki, “what always shone through was that he suffers from the same malady that so many regional leaders suffer from — the inability to conceive of how to share power with other key groups and constituencies.”
That worsened after Obama and al-Maliki could not reach agreement on keeping a residual U.S. force at the end of 2011 when U.S. troops departed. Within days, al-Maliki arrested a Sunni vice president, foreshadowing a more sectarian strategy.
Without the influence and the security of U.S. troops, al-Maliki lashed out to consolidate power.
“We lost that leverage,” said David Kilcullen, who was an adviser to Gen. David H. Petraeus in Iraq. “At that point, his natural sectarian tendencies really came to the fore.”
With another election deadlock in 2010, al-Maliki outmaneuvered a rival to win another term with the perceived support of Americans eager to maintain stability. U.S. officials denied supporting al-Maliki, saying his rival simply could not forge a coalition.
Either way, al-Maliki grew more sectarian, and the relationship soured further. He blocked U.S. efforts to send military advisers after troops left, but then as Islamic extremists spilled over the border from Syria grew frustrated that requests for help from Washington were not met. He felt abandoned, officials said.
Even after Obama sent advisers and surveillance planes, al-Maliki resisted Washington’s advice. U.S. officials warned against trying to retake Tikrit from the Sunni insurgents, but he ignored them.
Now Obama is moving on. Biden called Massoum, the Iraqi president who nominated al-Abadi, to buck him up “to hold firm in the face of pressure” from al-Maliki, according to the senior official. Biden came away impressed with al-Abadi, finding him “very different from Maliki,” the official said, “pragmatic and cool headed.”
Jeffrey said al-Maliki had been a “relatively effective leader” but not good at “managing up” and working with U.S. supporters.
“Both presidents, even President Bush, often wondered when is this going to end, when is this nightmare going to end,” he said. “You’re always going to be disappointed by whoever the political leaders are.”