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U.S. Signals Increasing Frustration With Iraqi Premier

Happier times? Bush (right) and al-Maliki in Jordan in November, 2006 (epa) August 22, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki appears to be rapidly losing U.S. political support.

U.S. President George W. Bush, speaking at a news conference in Canada on August 21, avoided his customary praise for al-Maliki, instead underlining his concerns about the Iraqi government:

"There's a process taking place, and the fundamental question is, will the government respond to the demands of the people?" Bush said. "And if the government doesn't 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."

The head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Carl Levin, speaking after his recent visit to Iraq, was more outspoken. He called on the Iraqi parliament to vote the al-Maliki government from power, saying it had “totally and utterly failed” to reach a political settlement.

"The United States feels he is not delivering and he is not contributing and helping the country to stabilize, and he is too weak to force the militias [that are supposed] to be disbanded." -- analyst Mustafa Alani

And the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, told journalists on August 21 that the Iraqi government's progress toward national reconciliation was "extremely disappointing."

All this comes just weeks before Crocker and General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, are due to deliver a key progress report on developments in Iraq, that could lead to policy changes from Washington.

Al-Maliki today brushed off U.S. criticism of his government, telling reporters at a press conference in Damascus that "no one has the right to place timetables on the Iraq government. It was elected by its people."

'Failing Expectations'

Mustafa Alani, the director of security and terrorism studies at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, says the United States has good reasons to be unhappy with al-Maliki:

"Now we are talking about more than a year [of al-Maliki being in power,]" Alani says. "He was unable to produce any political reforms, and he is not meeting the United States' expectations. Now the United States feels he is not delivering and he is not contributing and helping the country to stabilize, and he is too weak to force the militias [that are supposed] to be disbanded. He is too weak to introduce amendments to the constitution, and [to address] other issues -- the question of the police, the question of the army."

Alani says that U.S. dissatisfaction alone wouldn't be enough to remove the prime minister. But he notes that al-Maliki is rapidly losing support in the Iraqi parliament, too.

"Al-Maliki is losing support even within the [Iraqi] parliament -- [within radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada] al-Sadr's group, the Arab Sunni coalition. So he is not only losing the American support, he is losing inside the country as well," he says.

Many Iraqi politicians would seem to agree. Hasan al-Shammari, a parliamentarian from the Shi'ite Al-Fadilah Party, says his party is unhappy with the current situation. He says al-Maliki is not prepared to address the key issues that need to be discussed.

"No steps have been taken to reform the political process," al-Shammari says. "What we have now is an approach to address some unresolved issues, which parliament has not been able to decide. These include the oil law and the de-Ba'athification law as well as the question of the powers delegated to the presidential council and those of the prime minister, the so-called 3+1 formula. These are the issues to be considered with leaders of the political blocs at the coming meeting. I don't think at issue is the political situation and restructuring the entire political process to be managed in genuine partnership. No, I don't think this is the issue put on the table."

Sunni parliamentarian Abd al-Karim al-Samarra'i of the Iraqi Accordance Front is even more critical and says the party's participation in the current cabinet is excluded.

Critics say al-Maliki's government has been slow to disband militias (epa)

"The Accordance Front has made up its mind," al-Samarra'i says. "It will never return to the government in its present composition. Frankly speaking it is a long agenda. As you know, the points of contention referred to the coming meeting [of leaders of the various groups] are many. They include the constitution, bills sent to parliament, national reconciliation, the Accordance Front's demands, the militias, etc. In fact there are many demands, not only those of the Accordance Front. The important thing is that the Accordance Front's return or non-return to government is not linked to meeting its demands. These are national demands and no one can concede some of them or engage in bargaining over these demands if they are met by the government. There is no room whatsoever for bargaining in this regard."

It is difficult to tell at this stage who might vie to replace al-Maliki, should it come to that. Shi’ite parties have the majority in the parliament and it is most likely, Alani says, that the next prime minister would also be a Shi’ite politician.

"They have to pick someone from the parliament, someone who can enjoy the support of the parliament," he says. "It needs to be one from a major Shi’ite party. But changing a personality could help because they [parliamentarians] think al-Maliki is too weak as a person, and it is not the only question of whether a Shi’ite is a prime minister or not, it is a question of personality as well."

Alani says there is not a clear candidate now. But he says he is sure the majority in the Iraqi parliament could find a personality acceptable to the ruling majority.

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