Talking Up The New Guy
U.S. hopes now rest on a tough, pragmatic Shiite politician
Trust matters. Still, Rice and Rumsfeld emerged from their meetings enthusiastic about Iraq's next leaders. Maliki "understood his role and the role of the new government to really demonstrate that it's a government of national unity in which all Iraqis could trust," Rice said. Privately, Maliki assured them that his first priority would be to address what he called the "mistrust" between Iraqis from different elements of society, a key U.S. concern in the wake of the recent surge in sectarian violence.
Maliki is, for the most part, an unknown quantity. Rice had never met him before, although he is a longtime opposition figure and most recently headed the security committee in Iraq's parliament. He is reputed to be a hard-liner and belongs to the same Shiite religious party as his predecessor Jafari, whom U.S. officials have criticized sharply. So far, though, Maliki appears to stack up rather favorably. He is blunt and decisive, in contrast to the more inscrutable Jafari. Also, unlike Jafari, he does not bring with him a tight, secretive cadre of aides who tend to shut out other voices. Indeed, Maliki has so few confidants that U.S. diplomats lent him a few U.S. advisers for his transition team.
One of the biggest U.S. concerns about Jafari had been his unwillingness--or inability--to dismantle the various armed militias belonging to different political actors, both inside and outside the security forces. Those militias are thought responsible for some of the bodies, often showing evidence of torture, that turn up daily around the capital. So far, Maliki's public and private statements on this have been encouraging. "Weapons should be in the hands of the state only," he told an Iraqi satellite channel last week. "The carriage of weapons by others means the beginning of trouble that might lead us" to civil war."
Maliki, however, has never held an executive management role, which makes it difficult to predict his ability to seize the reins of power. When his government takes office, it will inherit all the weaknesses of its predecessors--a crumbling infrastructure, largely unreliable security forces, and a feeble bureaucracy hampered further by rampant corruption. He will also assume power after an extended political vacuum that the Bush administration has blamed for exacerbating sectarian tensions.
In fact, Washington has attributed so many recent problems to the lack of a government that it has inadvertently raised expectations for Maliki that could prove to be unattainable. "I just hope that people understand and keep those expectations in check because it does take some time for any government, let alone one that is governing permanently for the first time, to get hold of the reins and to start making a difference in people's lives," says Rice.
Maliki told Rumsfeld and Rice that he understands that one of his first tests will be Baghdad's stifling summer heat, which will start building in the coming weeks. Electricity production nationally remains below prewar levels even as demand continues to mushroom. Parts of Iraq have seen gains. "The reliability and predictability and delivery of electricity outside Baghdad has improved since the war," says Daniel Speckhard, who runs the U.S. Iraq Reconstruction Management Office.
But inside the capital, supplies are still erratic, and residents are getting only between four and eight hours of power a day. Insurgents continue to sabotage power lines with alarming success. U.S. officials admit that significant boosts in output will take several years, but they believe that Maliki can at least improve the predictability of the power supply in Baghdad. Says Speckhard, "People will be watching closely to see how the government does on this."