On 18 December last year, a week before Christmas, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew to Iraq, where she visited a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kirkuk and then went on to Baghdad. That evening, she had a 25-minute routine meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, then-Commanding General David Petraeus and US Ambassador Ryan Crocker. At about 7:30pm, Rice asked the others to leave so she could talk privately with the Prime Minister.
"You’re not succeeding," she told him bluntly, and attempted to list all of the management and social problems in his Government. The negotiations over new UN Security Council resolutions and other matters could not be conducted with only the Prime Minister and members of his staff, she told him. In the future, negotiations would have to include a representative team of Sunnis and Kurds. "You cannot succeed alone," she said. "There are people in your office who do not serve you or the Iraqi nation well."
"Who are they?" Maliki asked.
"Prime Minister," she said, "I am not going to list their names, but I can tell you, you are not well served by people."
"I’ve been waiting a long time to have this conversation," Maliki said. "Let me describe how hard it is to be Prime Minister of Iraq." He was surrounded by enemies, he said. The presidency council, consisting of President Jalal Talabani and Vice Presidents Tariq al-Hashimi and Adel Abdul Mahdi, conspired against him and blocked legislation at every turn. He mentioned specific actions and alleged plots – a mixture of suspicion and accurate descriptions of the struggle for power amid sectarian hatreds. The meeting lasted an hour and 15 minutes.
Afterward, Rice was delayed an hour on the next leg of her trip because a suspected IED had to be cleared. She told her advisers that she would have to come back to Baghdad as soon as possible to establish a rhythm of talking directly to Maliki and other leaders – Sunni, Shia and Kurd.
Later that month, Maliki’s fears came dangerously close to being fulfilled. The Kurds, along with Sunni leader Hashimi, formed a coalition and drafted a manifesto saying the Government was not performing. They hoped to force a vote of no confidence and bring down the Maliki Government. Maliki raged, and two of his top advisors, Sadiq al-Rikabi and Sami al-Askari, urged him to force an open debate. They drafted an in-your-face rebuttal. But Mowaffak al Rubaie, the national security adviser, warned, "That’ll just make it public, and you’ll have a real mess. Deal with this privately."
Maliki eventually sent Rubiae north to meet Massoud Barzani, the President of the Autonomous Kurdish Government, who finally agreed not to press a manifesto that might precipitate a Government collapse.
On January 15, 2008, Condoleezza Rice went to Baghdad to meet with the leaders that Maliki had identified as enemies -Talabani, Hashimi, Mahdi, and Barzani. She put the problems in legislative terms, focusing on the political, not the sectarian, and defended Maliki to the others.
"Don’t tell me he is blocking things," Rice said. "You have more votes."
Maliki overestimated the temporary restraint of his enemies and in a public speech in February 2008 announced, "National reconciliation efforts have succeeded in Iraq, and the Iraqis have once again become loving brothers."
In March, Maliki and Petraeus, were intensifying plans to launch joint military operations in Basra, the city in southeastern Iraq about 15 miles from the Iranian border. It would be a test of whether Maliki would get serious about imposing central government rule in the hotbed of Iranian influence and Shia extremism. At the end of the month, intelligence showed that Maliki was going to go it alone, even personally oversee the Iraqi army attack on the ground.
"Holy shit!" said Ambassador Crocker. Petraeus couldn’t believe it.
Maliki and his forces were ill prepared. Everything could be lost in one impulsive gamble. How could they walk him back? Soon Maliki sent official word that he was going ahead. Many officials in the US Government were horrified.
But not the President. Maliki was taking a bold step in the face of all rational judgement. George W Bush believed it was the right cause. "This is a defining moment in the history of a free Iraq," the President said at a press conference. He also passed word to Maliki: good for you, keep it up, forward to victory.
Moqtada al-Sadr’s forces in Sadr City began shelling the Green Zone in March 2008. US officials locked the area down, and 1000 officials crowded into one of Saddam Hussein’s hardened masonry structures, where they slept on cots. One rocket hit the doorway of Ambassador Crocker’s residence, and a heavy-calibre 240 millimetre shell – more than nine inches in diameter – hit 100 metres away and blew out windows.
Soon, Maliki had Iraqi forces moving into Sadr City. He was countering the allegations of the Sunni Arabs that he was an Iranian puppet or a tool of the Shia militias. He was taking on the most powerful Shia militia of all, the Mahdi Army, the most direct and important Iranian asset on the ground in Iraq.
Ambassador David Satterfield, who is Senior Advisor to the Secretary of State and Coordinator for Iraq, could barely listen to Bush’s inflated rhetoric. It was too overstated, too triumphant, too victorious. Bush was feeling renewed confidence because of the lower levels of violence, thanks to Petraeus’s and Crocker’s work.
From watching the President up close for several years, Satterfield had reached some conclusions. If Bush believed something was right, he believed it would succeed. Its very rightness ensured ultimate success. Democracy and freedom were right. Therefore, they would win out.
Bush, Satterfield observed, tolerated no doubt. His words and actions constantly reminded those around him that he was in charge. He was the decider. As a result, he often made biting jokes or asides to colleagues that Satterfield found deeply wounding and cutting. In one instance, Rice had raised a budget issue at a meeting.
"Now’s not the time and place for you to be advocating the interests of your building," Bush had said. "I told you, I don’t want to hear about that."
Satterfield found it offensive, though Rice didn’t seem too bothered.
The President had little patience for briefings. "Speed it up. This isn’t my first rodeo," he would say often to those presenting. It was difficult to brief him because he would interject his own narrative, questions or off-putting jokes. Presentations and discussions rarely unfolded in a logical, comprehensive fashion. Satterfield thought this reflected an insecurity in Bush. The President was a bully.
Satterfield kept making regular trips to Iraq to help in the delicate negotiations on the Status of Forces Agreement that would allow US forces to remain. As he dealt with various Iraqi officials, he was faced with the extent to which the United States had created and propped up a kind of puppet government. With 157,000 troops, more than 180,000 contractors and 1000 State Department officials in Iraq, the United States was the shadow government. He knew of no parallel in history. If the United States withdrew, the whole house of cards would crumble.
By the northern Spring of 2008, Satterfield found Baghdad more secure than on previous visits. The markets were open. Iraqis and US troops walked through the streets without body armour. But areas were closed off and surrounded by barricades. Nothing about Baghdad’s state reflected normal city life. He concluded that a precipitous US withdrawal would ignite a new struggle for power, resources and territory, and the beneficiaries would be al Qaeda and Iran.
When Satterfield pondered the future of Iraq, he was stumped. There was such a mix of good and bad news. Which would win out? What would last? What would survive?
"You cannot credibly speak of an end state," he said. "Where’s the endgame? What’s the endgame?"
This is an edited extract from The War Within: The Final Blow to the Bush Administration by Bob Woodward (Simon and Schuster, $49.95).
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