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Crisis in the Green Zone

Nuri al-Maliki's outburst against US criticism is bad news for George Bush, whose political project for Iraq now looks more fragile than ever.

 

By Jonathan Steele

08/22/07 "The Guardian" -- - The bad news from Iraq continues to grow for George Bush. First, a Blackhawk goes down, taking the lives of 14 hapless soldiers and crewmen. It is not the worst chopper disaster since the invasion, but it bumps the death toll of US personnel closer to the 4,000 mark.

Next comes the Iraqi prime minister, angrily announcing that "no one has the right to place timetables on the Iraq government. It was elected by its people." In two sentences Bush's "benchmarks" have been tossed out of the window. These were the signs of political progress in Iraq that the White House wants to put in its report to Congress next month.

Nuri al-Maliki's outburst follows public comments from Bush expressing frustration with the Iraqi government, and hinting that it may be replaced. Maliki knew Bush was putting him under pressure to come up with a series of measures that could match the military progress which General David Petraeus will outline when he reports on the surge. It was recently revealed that the Petraeus report will actually be drafted by the White House, using input from the general that can then be spun. But while Petraeus is a US government employee who is subject to the disciplines of command and control, Maliki isn't. He's independent enough to show his voters that he is not going to be dictated to by foreigners, even though he is in fact their puppet, whose position would collapse if the US left Iraq. The row symbolises the contradiction of describing a government as sovereign when its country is occupied.

Even before the latest spat between Maliki and Bush, the Iraqi prime minister was in difficulty. Half his cabinet has gone. The main Sunni members recently resigned, following a few months after the Shia ministers loyal to the anti-occupation cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr. This means that Maliki no longer has a guaranteed majority of supporters in parliament if it comes to a no-confidence vote.

Like Bush, Maliki has become a lame duck. Bush of course can stay in office for another 17 months. Maliki can also stagger on in charge of a minority government, since no other Iraqi seems able or willing to put a different coalition together. And, for all his tough talk about seeing Maliki replaced, Bush is doomed to go on supporting him. A vacuum in Baghdad would look even worse in American voters' eyes.

In one sense, the crisis only confirms what has been clear for months. Whoever sits in the Green Zone in nominal charge of Iraq's government has little power or authority beyond its walls. Bush's political project for Iraq looks more fragile than ever.

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