BAGHDAD — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has been on a roll, and American officials are getting worried.
Once perceived as a sectarian Shiite Muslim leader, the U.S.-backed Maliki has won over Sunni constituents in recent months with offensives to curb Shiite militias in southern cities such as Basra and Amara and in the Baghdad Shiite slum of Sadr City.
He then turned his security forces north to wrest control of Mosul and Diyala province from Sunni extremists. U.S. forces provided strong backing, and except for Basra and Sadr City, the operations were announced in advance so that militants and insurgents had a chance to run.
Now, however, U.S. officials in Baghdad worry that success has gone to Maliki's head. They fear that his tough bargaining on a long-term security agreement with the United States is a sign that Maliki thinks he can move ahead on his own.
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"There is no question that the Iraqi security forces have come a very long way in the course of the last 12 to 18 months. The growth in numbers and in capability has been very significant," said a top U.S. military official in Iraq. "But the 'enablers,' if you will, the assets that the coalition provides, are still very important and will be important for quite some time, and have been decisive, even in operations in the past six months. So, as always, caution is a wise approach." The official wouldn't be quoted by name because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Last Monday, Maliki dug in his heels publicly at a meeting with tribal sheikhs where he insisted that a firm date for U.S. withdrawal is required in a security agreement that has been under intense negotiations for weeks, and he set the date as the end of 2011. The agreement would replace a U.N. mandate set to expire at the end of this year.
His public defiance rankled U.S. officials in Iraq and in Washington, who'd been telling reporters that the security agreement was virtually complete and glossing over the disputes about a timetable and about immunity for U.S. troops who are accused of committing crimes in Iraq.
The operation in Basra, which U.S. officials originally argued against, led to Maliki's more assertive dealings with the Americans, one Iraqi official said. The operation was a success, and Basra, once a Shiite militia stronghold, came under central government control.
Without U.S. and British planes swooping in to save the Iraqi army, however, the operation might have failed, U.S. officials in Iraq said, adding that in recent weeks the situation in Basra has slid downhill again, with a resurgence of assassinations in the city. The officials refused to be quoted by name because their assessments are less optimistic than the Bush administration's public ones are.
The Americans "contributed to creating this overconfidence," said an Iraqi official close to Maliki. "They kept telling him he can't do it, it's going to be a disaster and you are going to have massive casualties and not achieve anything in Basra. ... It achieved things that a much longer British operation couldn't achieve." The official refused to be named because he wasn't authorized to speak to reporters about the issue.
Some of Maliki's public statements may amount to political posturing to his fractured political base in parliament, which needs to approve the final security agreement.
Maliki's defiance, however, could also be attributed to his unstinting support from the Bush administration. Maliki and President Bush have weekly video conferences, and no matter what Maliki does, he knows that U.S. support is there for him, the U.S. officials said.
The Iraqi government is eager to take over the Sons of Iraq program, a U.S. initiative that pays mostly Sunni former insurgents to protect their neighborhoods. The Shiite-led government's aim, however, isn't to absorb the mostly Sunni groups into the security forces, but to disarm and in some cases detain the men.
"All of these recent security operations had critical U.S. enablers, and he wouldn't have been able to do it without them," said Sam Parker, who deals with Iraq for the U.S. Institute for Peace, a government-supported policy organization in Washington. "The dependency relationship is there, which makes his dictating demands to us unusual. ... He doesn't think that the U.S. is willing to let Iraq fail. He thinks that the U.S. really wants to keep U.S. troops there long term. We never say, 'You need to do certain things for us to continue supporting you.'"
Maliki realizes that his security forces still need help, and he's pressing the U.S. administration to accelerate arms sales and to bolster Iraq's fledgling air force.
"He is growing and may feel he's achieved a lot on security and on reconciliation and re-establishing the national unity government," an Iraqi official close to Maliki said. "He's taking credit for this security improvement. ... He believes he can afford to disagree with the Americans."
Privately, U.S. officials grumble that Maliki doesn't appreciate the training and support that the United States has provided, and some Iraqi officials also worry that the prime minister has let his recent successes overpower the reality in Iraq.
"Maliki is pragmatic, he believes Obama is the next president, and he believes Bush is dead," said Mithal al Alusi, a secular legislator who frequently speaks to Maliki. "Maliki feels himself the winner and no one can stop him."
When presidential hopeful Barack Obama visited Iraq in July, Maliki threw his support behind the senator's plan to withdraw all U.S. troops within 16 months.
But there may be more to Maliki's public and private defiance. The prime minister has to sell the final security deal between the two nations to a divided parliament that has difficulty agreeing on any major issues in Iraq. The fiery Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr has also said that he'd completely disarm his militia, now only partly disarmed, if there were a clear timetable for an American withdrawal in the final agreement.
Maliki is now demanding a firm timetable for withdrawal and jurisdiction over American soldiers outside their bases. The second demand has stalled the process and does not seem amenable to compromise.
For now, Maliki has achieved none of his demands, said Ali al Adeeb, a leading legislator in Maliki's party. The current wording in the agreement is that U.S. soldiers will withdraw to their bases by June 30, 2009, and leave by the summer of 2011 if conditions allow.
"What the Iraqis want is a firm date, and with all the insistence and persistence on our side, all we have is a firm date for restricting the American military to their bases," he said. "There is no overconfidence or arrogance in Maliki's insistence on his position. ... There is a clear indication that the Iraqi forces are now capable of providing the security services required. I think it's enough time, three years is more than enough time."
(McClatchy special correspondent Sahar Issa contributed to this report.)