- The Washington Times - Monday, January 15, 2007

President Bush’s legacy is now in the hands of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the head of Iraq’s government who is in a tenuous position in Baghdad and quickly losing the confidence of Congress and the Bush administration.

“That is the biggest of potential weak links in the president’s program because Maliki has, in a number of ways over a period of time, demonstrated he really can’t be counted on for significant cooperation and assertive action,” said James F. Hoge Jr., editor of Foreign Affairs magazine.

In November, Mr. Bush met with Mr. al-Maliki in Jordan and declared him “the right guy for Iraq.” The prime minister received no such praise in the president’s major prime-time speech last week. Senior White House officials have expressed “skepticism,” and top lawmakers worry that Mr. Bush has placed too much confidence in Mr. al-Maliki.

“So much of our future in that place is in the hands of Maliki,” said Sen. George V. Voinovich, Ohio Republican and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who added that he doubts the prime minister is up to the challenge. “I don’t think he is.”

Mr. al-Maliki took office in May, three months after the bombing of the Shi’ites’ Golden Mosque in Samarra, and has been dealing with sectarian violence from the start of his term.

Mr. Bush last week announced a plan to send more than 21,000 additional troops — 17,000 to Baghdad and 4,000 to Anbar province in the west — in what may be the last major U.S. hope for leaving Iraq a stable nation.

The soldiers being sent to Baghdad are supposed to be coupled with more Iraqi units, who Mr. Bush has said will take the lead in fighting in and around the city. In addition, Mr. Bush said he secured an agreement from Mr. al-Maliki that the Iraqi and American forces will have the freedom to pursue anyone they see as a threat, which would include Shi’ite militias that have been considered off-limits.

The main question, Mr. Voinovich and Mr. Hoge said, is Mr. al-Maliki’s relationship with Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr. They wonder whether the prime minister would confront the powerful Shi’ite religious leader, who many observers say is key to Mr. al-Maliki’s power base.

“Too much of the evidence to date points to [the prime minister] as being a Shi’a advocate for Shi’a dominance and for a certain amount of payback to Sunnis for what they’ve done over many, many years. That, of course, is not a scenario we endorse,” Mr. Hoge said.

Mr. Voinovich fears that Sheik al-Sadr has ambitions to turn Iraq into “a Shi’ite theocracy like they have in Iran, and he will be the new ayatollah.”

Mr. al-Maliki has lost the confidence of his own countrymen. A September poll by Opinion Research Business, or ORB, based in Britain, found that 29 percent of Iraqi adults had a favorable opinion of the prime minister, down 50 percent from a June poll that put his approval at 58 percent.

American opinion is just as pessimistic. A CNN poll taken Jan. 11 found that just 38 percent were very or somewhat confident “in the ability of the Iraqi government to handle the situation in Iraq.”

In the days since Mr. Bush’s speech, Mr. al-Maliki has been silent.

“It’s extremely important he gets out in a news conference and makes very clear that what the president is proposing, that he supports it,” Mr. Voinovich said, adding that Iraqis must recognize the plan as a proposal from their own government rather than as a U.S. dictate.

The White House tried to counter those concerns. Spokesman Tony Snow said last week that Mr. al-Maliki has larger worries than U.S. perception.

“He’s not responding to the U.S. press corps. What he’s doing is, he’s responding to the Iraqi public,” Mr. Snow said. “What he’s been talking about the last couple of days were what his constituents want to hear about.”

The White House also has issued two memorandums to reporters detailing statements from other Iraqi leaders — from the president to the deputy prime minister to Mr. al-Maliki’s spokesman — backing Mr. Bush’s plan.

Mr. al-Maliki has hinted that he doesn’t want the challenge. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal published two weeks ago, he lamented about his job: “I wish I could be done with it even before the end of this term.”

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