The U.S. government is coming around to the realization that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, or at least his political bloc, will come out on top and form the next Iraqi government.
It's true that the more secular "Iraqi" alliance led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi won more seats in the parliamentary elections. But since Maliki's State of Law coalition formally joined with the Iraqi National Alliance, which includes radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, administration and embassy officials are anticipating that Allawi will not be able to take a shot at forming a government, and the Maliki-Sadr alliance will come out on top.
"In Baghdad, they are calling Allawi the Iraqi Tzipi Livni," said one official source, referring to the Israeli Kadima Party leader, whose party won the most seats in Israel's 2009 elections but was then relegated to the opposition via a similar maneuver by right-wing parties.
Maliki might not ultimately stay on as prime minister because the Sadrists really dislike him, but he is the leading contender and has been at the center of the campaign to alter the outcome by mounting challenges to Allawi's candidates and calling for massive recounts.
Embassy officials in Baghdad have been heavily engaged with all the political leaders since the election ended and the wrangling for power began. U.S. Ambassador Chris Hill and his team have been holding more than two dozen meetings per week with Iraqi leaders, pressing them to abide by agreed-upon political processes and move forward with the formation of the government before everyone gets too restless.
Although the elections are still in dispute and both sides are still playing games, the embassy is praising the elections and is prepared to endorse the result, no matter who comes out on top.
"These were the most successful and credible elections in the history of any Arab country. That's an amazing story," Gary Grappo, the top political official at the embassy, told The Cable.
If Maliki is confirmed as Iraq's next prime minister, the U.S. will have a partner it knows well and has been carefully handling throughout the process. While some believe Maliki's actions in recent weeks show he will use any means to stay in power, the embassy's view is that he is something of an opportunist and can be encouraged to curb questionable behavior.
"Like any politician, Maliki will use all legal and political tools at his disposal," a senior embassy official said, referring to Maliki's work with the Accountability and Justice Commission, the controversial de-Baathification commission controlled by Ahmed Chalabi and Ali Faisal al-Lami.
Both Hill and his military counterpart, Gen. Raymond Odierno, have said publicly that Chalabi and Lami are heavily influenced by Iran and the embassy has no illusions about their goal. "This is an organization of questionable legitimacy employing less than transparent means to challenge a legitimate election," the senior embassy official said.
that Hill will leave in July and be replaced by Ambassador to Turkey Jim Jeffrey.
Stuart E. Jones, a
deputy assistant secretary who handles Balkan affairs, will replace Baghdad No.
2 Robert Ford, who is still waiting
out his stalled nomination process to become
ambassador to Syria. Jones was previously the deputy chief of mission in Cairo.
Our sources also poured cold water on a report in the Guardian claiming that the U.S. military is planning to delay the withdrawal of some troops due to a recent uptick in violence in Iraq. Sure, the withdrawal plan is flexible, but the team is still committed to getting down to 50,000 troops on the ground by September, our sources report.
As for Odierno, who like Hill is also leaving in July, he too has been engaging with Iraqi political leaders, but not with the embassy staff. He holds his own meetings and then confers with the embassy later. There has been much written, including here, about the supposedly contentious relationship between Hill and Odierno. But as the military withdraws, whatever differences exist are growing less important because the embassy is clearly taking over.
For now, Odierno is staying involved because the military still feels deeply invested in the war it has now been fighting for more than seven years. "After the many mistakes made and huge cost paid, they got the strategy and its implementation right, and want to leave with their heads up. And they deserve that," the embassy official said.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.