But the meetings have so far failed to produce anything substantially new. While the pledge of an expanded UN role is undoubtedly positive, there is no guarantee that the security situation will stabilize enough to allow the UN to conduct its operations effectively.
Moreover, hopes that Iraq's neighbors would come together to resolve their differences for the benefit of Iraq failed to materialize. There were also no high-level contacts between the United States and Iran or Syria. In fact, it was up to al-Maliki, during his UN General Assembly speech, to underscore the importance for Iraq's neighbors of stopping the flow of arms, money, and fighters into Iraq. In a not-so-veiled warning, he said that failure to do so would lead to disastrous consequences for the region and the world.
Blackwater Issue Overshadows Meeting
One of the main objectives of al-Maliki's visit to UN headquarters in New York was to rally more international support and highlight Iraq's accomplishments 4 1/2 years after the U.S.-led invasion and the overthrow of the former regime.
But while he was able to make his case during meetings with world leaders and in his address to the UN General Assembly, the issue involving the alleged killing of 11 Iraqi civilians by the U.S. private security firm Blackwater USA in Baghdad on September 16 seemed to dominate the news. The Blackwater issue was allotted significant coverage in both the Western and Iraqi media, but the issue came to a fore during al-Maliki's brief meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush on the sidelines of the General Assembly on September 25.
While neither leader publicly mentioned the incident, Iraqi and U.S. officials clearly indicated that the issue was broached during the 75-minute closed-door meeting. Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told reporters after the meeting that al-Maliki stressed the need to respect Iraq's sovereignty. U.S. national security adviser Stephen Hadley made similar comments regarding the need to recognize Iraqi sovereignty.
Having the incident framed, by both Iraqi and U.S. officials, as an issue pertaining to Iraq's sovereignty underscores the severity of the Blackwater incident and how it may impact U.S.-Iraqi relations.
Difficult Issues Face Iraqi Leader
One of the issues al-Maliki repeatedly stressed during his meetings at the UN was the importance of fostering national reconciliation. During his September 25 meeting with Bush, he said, "the future of Iraq goes through the gates of national reconciliation." If Iraq is to achieve this, then some of the thornier issues need to be resolved.
One is the ongoing political paralysis due to the continuing boycott of al-Maliki's government by the biggest Sunni-led political bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front. The front's six ministers withdrew from al-Maliki's cabinet in early August after he failed to meet its demands including the release of Sunni detainees not charged with specific crimes, the disbanding of Shi'ite militias, and wider inclusion for the front in the decision-making process.
Almost half of the ministerial posts are currently vacant and al-Maliki has threatened to fill those posts, including ones formerly held by members of the Accordance Front, with "qualified technocrats" -- a move that would further isolate the Sunni Arab community and put an end to the idea of the formation of a true "unity government." Indeed, pushing the Accordance Front out of the government would seriously hamper any notion of achieving national reconciliation.
Another is the lack of a comprehensive hydrocarbon law. After nearly a year of negotiations, the Baghdad government has yet to pass the petroleum revenue-sharing law that many Iraqi and U.S. officials consider vital to promoting national reconciliation. In fact, the lack of a federal oil law has led the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) to ratify its own oil law. The KRG has also announced the signing of contracts with the U.S.-based Hunt Oil Company and Impulse Energy Corporation to conduct petroleum exploration activities in northern Iraq.
The federal government has called these deals, as well as past deals between the KRG and foreign firms, illegal. The KRG contends that their deals are valid since no federal oil law has existed since the fall of the former regime. The KRG deals may arguably mark the first steps toward greater autonomy, which could damage any hopes of national reconciliation.
After his meeting with Bush, al-Maliki acknowledged the difficulty of the many issues facing him and his government in achieving national reconciliation when he said, "the task before us is gigantic."
Searching For A Way Forward
LOOKING BEYOND AL-MALIKI: RFE/RL Iraq analyst Kathleen Ridolfo led an RFE/RL briefing about the changing political landscape in Iraq, focusing on efforts to gain the upper hand in the event that the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki falls.
LISTENListen to the entire briefing (about 70 minutes):
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