Heated exchanges tax Petraeus-Maliki relations

Published July 29, 2007

BAGHDAD - A key aide says Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's relations with Gen. David Petraeus are so poor the Iraqi leader may ask Washington to withdraw the overall U.S. commander from his Baghdad post.

Iraq's foreign minister calls the relationship "difficult." Petraeus, who says their ties are "very good," acknowledges expressing his "full range of emotions" at times with Maliki. U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who meets with both at least weekly, concedes "sometimes there are sporty exchanges."

It seems less a clash of personality than of policy. The Shiite Muslim prime minister has reacted most sharply to the American general's tactic of enlisting Sunni militants, presumably including past killers of Iraqi Shiites, as allies in the fight against al-Qaida.

An associate said Maliki, in discussion with President Bush, once even threatened to counter this by arming Shiite militias.

History shows that the strain of war often turns allies into uneasy partners. The reality of how these allies get along may lie somewhere between the worst and best reports about the relationship, one central to the future of Iraq and perhaps to the larger Middle East.

Word of strained relations began leaking out with consistency this month.

Sami al-Askari, a key aide to Maliki and a member of the prime minister's Dawa Party, said the policy of incorporating one-time Sunni insurgents into the security forces shows Petraeus has a "real bias and it bothers the Shiites," whose communities have been targeted by Sunnis in Iraq's sectarian conflict.

"It is possible that we may demand his removal," Askari said.

Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told Newsweek magazine the Petraeus-Maliki relationship is "difficult." For one thing, the Americans retain control of the Iraqi military. "The prime minister cannot just pick up the phone and have Iraqi army units do what he says. Maliki needs more leverage," Zebari said.

In a public outburst earlier this month, Maliki said American forces should leave Iraq and turn over security to Iraqi troops. He quickly backpedaled, but the damage was done.

"There is no leader in the world that is under more pressure than Nouri Maliki, without question. Sometimes he reflects that frustration. I don't blame him," Crocker said.

Fast Facts:

Developments on Saturday

Violence: A car bomb exploded in a busy shopping street in predominantly Shiite eastern Baghdad, killing at least four people and wounding 10, police said. Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said the death toll in an attack Thursday in the Karradah neighborhood had nearly doubled to 61 after more bodies were pulled from the rubble. Authorities planned stepped-up patrols in Baghdad today as they intensified security to prevent a repeat of car bombings last week that killed dozens of revelers celebrating Iraq's progress to today's final of Asia's top soccer tournament.

U.S. military: U.S. troops captured 16 suspected insurgents during raids targeting al-Qaida in Iraq in the northern cities of Samara and Tarmiyah, the military said. The detainees included an alleged bombmaker who also was believed responsible for kidnappings, assassinations and extortion operations, according to a statement.

Reconstruction: The Iraqi government has refused to take control of more than 2,000 U.S.-funded reconstruction projects, a move that could jeopardize the country's credit line and cost American taxpayers, according to a report by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, an American watchdog agency. The report said transfers of projects stalled about a month after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki took office in May 2006. That forced U.S. officials to turn the reconstruction to local officials or to commit more money to keep them running.