THE incumbent Iraqi prime minister is a “stubborn” politician who will do “everything under the sun” to avoid losing his grip on power, according to a senior former United States diplomat.
Nouri al-Maliki is at the centre of a struggle to oust him from office after the nation’s president, Fouad Massoum, nominated the parliament’s deputy speaker, Haider al-Abadi, to form a new government.
Although he is increasingly seen as an isolated figure, Mr Maliki has questioned the legitimacy of the move and refused to step down. He has also warned the appointment of Mr Abadi could lead to further unrest, claiming that Sunni militants or Shiite militiamen might don uniforms and try to take control of the streets on the pretext of supporting him.
US president Barack Obama has telephoned Mr Abadi to congratulate him on his appointment, but John Jeffrey, a former US ambassador to Iraq, warned it was unlikely Mr Maliki would give up his office any time soon.
Mr Jeffrey said the veteran politician has long been regarded as a weak link by successive White House administrations, who have been frustrated by his inability to co-operate with the West.
He explained: “He’s stubborn and he’s a fighter and he’s going to be resisting this. Everybody’s pulled his hair out with him. I think he will step down if he has to rather than have a coup. He’ll try everything under the Sun to block it, including arresting people, but at some point someone has to talk with him.”
Mr Jeffrey, who also served as president George W Bush’s deputy national security adviser, said that while Mr Maliki had been a “relatively effective leader”, he was not good at “managing up” and working with American supporters.
“Both presidents, even president Bush, often wondered when is this going to end, when is this nightmare going to end,” he added. “You’re always going to be disappointed by whoever the political leaders are.”
The tensions between Mr Maliki and the US were evident as far back as 2007 when he and Mr Bush agreed to sign a declaration of principles on the future of relations between the two nations.
Mr Bush put his signature to the document, but Mr Maliki hovered his pen over his piece of paper, only pretending to sign. A US official noticed and accosted an aide of the Iraqi PM, telling him not to “screw” with Mr Bush.
The stand-off escalated soon after when Stephen Haldey, a national security advisor, criticised Mr Maliki for failing to rein in Shiite militias. In a leaked memo to Mr Bush, he judged him either “ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions” or incapable of taking action.
The problems continued when Mr Obama took office, with both men unable to reach a liability agreement that would have allowed a residual US force to stay in the country at the end of 2011. Mr Maliki later blocked US efforts to send military advisors. As Islamic extremists spilled over the border from Syria, he criticised Washington for failing to help.
The collapse in relations between the two men was clear when, speaking at a press conference on Monday, Mr Obama did not mention Mr Maliki’s name. Asked by a reporter if he had a message for Mr Maliki, the US president walked away.