Iraqi Prime Minister Pushes to Broaden Coalition
In Iraq this week, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced the formation of a new alliance of Shiite and Kurdish parties in an attempt to break the long-running political impasse in Baghdad.
But the alliance includes no Sunni political leaders and key Shiite groups are also not participating, and Maliki acknowledges the challenges he faces.
"You would have to be delusional to think it's easy to rule Iraq," the prime minister tells NPR in an interview Friday in his office in Baghdad's Green Zone.
"I know how difficult it is, and I know it will be like this for a long time, but the important thing is we're succeeding."
The prime minister says he will continue efforts to broaden his coalition, but warns that there is no more room left in his Cabinet for people who won't support him.
"Whoever wants to be a real partner has to share in the burden and the duty. He cannot be in government and oppose it, be in the political process and want it to fail," Maliki says.
One of the key holdouts is Iraq's Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a member of the largest Sunni alliance in the Iraqi parliament. Maliki says he will meet with Hashemi on Saturday to talk about how the Sunnis can be involved.
Hashemi's fellow Cabinet members resigned from government over claims that Prime Minister Maliki was ignoring their demands. Maliki says the door is open to Hashemi's party to return, but also notes that his government can survive without them.
"If they refuse to take part in the government, we'll be forced to select from the other Sunni Arabs in order to have the Sunnis represented in the government," Maliki says.
And the prime minister is looking elsewhere. Maliki on Friday visited Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit north of Baghdad, where he met with Sunni tribal leaders. He also has sent out feelers to local leaders in Anbar province, where Sunni tribesmen are now in an alliance with U.S. forces fighting the Islamist militants of al-Qaida. So far, there is no sign that the tribal leaders would be willing to join Maliki's government.
One of the Sunnis' main complaints is about Baghdad, where over the past 18 months, Shiite militias have expelled thousands of Sunnis from formerly mixed neighborhoods. Maliki says he has already begun to crack down on those militias.
"We've declared war on them. It's almost over, even though they do still attack, kidnap and shoot, but their operations have decreased significantly," Maliki says.
In less than a month, top U.S. military and diplomatic officials in Iraq are due to present a critical assessment of the situation in the country to Congress. The so-called surge of American forces that began in February was designed to give Maliki and other Iraqi political leaders an opportunity to work out their differences and promote national reconciliation.
The prime minister acknowledges that the politicians are far from achieving that goal, but he appeals for patience, saying "Here in Iraq, everything takes time." Talk of deadlines or U.S. troop withdrawals will only help Iraq's enemies, he says.
"Our enemies — al-Qaida, the outlaws and militias — they want an end to the political process," Maliki explains. "If they know there is a time frame or deadline, they will only intensify their efforts, and regional countries that support them will increase their sabotage."
In response to politicians who are calling for U.S. troops to pull out now, Maliki says "Withdrawing is futile, especially when there are signs of victory, the coalition troops have achieved a lot and sacrificed a lot.
"A sudden pullout, an uncoordinated pullout, will cause setbacks. If the aim is to reduce the number of troops, let that be done in an organized way."
Maliki's next big test will come in September when parliament reconvenes. The prime minister says his new political alliance has enough votes in the assembly to ensure passage of key legislation on the distribution of Iraq's oil revenues. But Maliki's opponents are confident they can block that move.
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