White House memo raises doubts about Iraqi leader

U.S. President George W. Bush’s national security adviser has raised serious doubts about Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s ability to control sectarian violence, The New York Times reported on Tuesday.

National security adviser Stephen Hadley told Bush and other top administration officials in a November 8 classified memo that the United States may have to take steps to strengthen the Iraqi leader politically, the newspaper said in an article posted on its Web site at www.nytimes.com.

A senior administration official confirmed the existence of the memo, which included options to help strengthen Maliki, and said it had been an assessment by Hadley after he made a trip to Iraq.

The memo surfaced as Bush prepared to meet with Maliki on Wednesday in Jordan to discuss a surge in sectarian violence between Sunni insurgents and Shi’ite militias.

Bush is also expected soon to receive proposals for possible changes in U.S. policy on Iraq from a bipartisan panel headed by former Secretary of State James Baker.

The Times said the five-page document was based in part on a meeting between Hadley and Maliki that took place in Iraq on October 30.

"He impressed me as a leader who wanted to be strong but was having difficulty figuring out how to do so," Hadley said in a text of the memo published by the Times.

It said Maliki receives "undoubtedly skewed" information from a small circle of advisers from the Shi’ite Dawa Party.

"His intentions seem good when he talks with Americans, and sensitive reporting suggests he is trying to stand up to the Shia hierarchy and force positive change," the memo said.

"But the reality on the streets of Baghdad suggests Maliki is either ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into actions."

In their meeting, the Times said, Maliki expressed to Hadley a vision of partnership between Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds.

But the memo said the Iraqi leader’s bipartisan assurances were contradicted by developments that suggest a campaign by Shi’ites to consolidate power in Baghdad, including an escalation of killings by the Mehdi Army militia created by radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

The Times said the memo suggested Bush press Saudi Arabia to use its influence with Sunnis in Iraq, possibly in return for a more active American role in the Arab-Israeli peace process.

The document also laid out a number of steps Maliki could take to establish control. But it said his position may be too tenuous to curb the power of Shi’ite militias, establish a more diverse staff and control escalating sectarian strife.

The memo suggested it may ultimately be necessary for Maliki to recast his parliamentary bloc, a step the United States could support by pressing moderates to align themselves with the Iraqi leader and giving them money.

© Reuters 2006