WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Talk about whether Iraq’s government will survive is taboo among U.S. officials, but experts and diplomats say the hobbled coalition is in big trouble and the betting is it won’t last.
Nearly half of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Cabinet members have quit or are boycotting meetings at a time when the Bush administration is under pressure to show Congress that Iraq’s warring factions are reconciling.
The State Department’s key players responsible for Iraq policy declined interviews on the strength of Iraq’s government, but U.S. officials have made it clear that Washington backs Maliki and that talk of a collapse of his government is unhelpful.
“Prime Minister Maliki has our full support. In view of the urgency and seriousness of the issues that he and his partners in leadership are confronting, efforts to undermine or obstruct him are dangerous and unwelcome,” said Philip Reeker, public affairs counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
Diplomats and experts say the fate of Maliki’s government remains in question despite the Bush administration’s support.
“With all these defections and boycotts of Cabinet meetings, it would seem that the wheels are coming off the cart,” said an Arab diplomat.
Former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel said it would be a “disaster” for President George W. Bush’s troop surge strategy if Maliki’s government collapsed and would weaken his case to Congress, which expects a report next month from the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus.
“No matter how many numbers General Petraeus can come up with, if the government is falling apart, the American people will see that the strategy has failed on the political side,” said Riedel, now with the Brookings Institution.
“It’s no wonder the administration does not want to talk about it. It is a nightmare for them.”
While the White House is reluctant to publicly criticize Maliki, U.S. mistrust was exposed last November when a leaked memorandum from National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley cast doubt on the Shi’ite politician’s ability to reconcile Iraq’s Shia, Kurd and Sunni groups.
“The reality on the streets of Baghdad suggests Maliki is either ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions, or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into action,” wrote Hadley.
A senior Bush administration official, who declined to be named, said nine months later there was still dissatisfaction with Maliki but talk had not turned to who might replace him.
“The question is what would that (new government) be and how long would it take,” said the official, adding that it had taken months to cobble together Maliki’s coalition.
If Maliki’s government did collapse, the aim would be to emphasize a “unity of purpose” among the key parties and find a way to demonstrate that, the official said.
Iraq expert Olga Oliker of the RAND Corporation said attempts by Washington to seek out a new Iraqi leader would backfire.
“To be a colonial puppet master you need a much stronger understanding and subtle knowledge of the culture and history than the U.S. has demonstrated over the past few years in Iraq,” Oliker said.
Maliki’s government was so “dysfunctional” to begin with that its fall might not have a huge impact, former State Department Iraq analyst Wayne White said.
“Governance in Iraq is broken, and it is highly questionable whether Maliki’s fall would mean all that much. Would his fall make matters worse? Yes. But I don’t think his remaining in office would create a situation all that much better,” said White, who left the State Department in 2005 and is at the Middle East Institute in Washington.