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Memo Reveals Security Council's Doubts on Al-Maliki

MIKE PESCA, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Mike Pesca.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

President Bush meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki today in Jordan. In a few minutes we'll talk to our reporter in Jordan's capital, Amman.

PESCA: But first, a classified memo and the impact it could have on today's meeting. It wasn't too long ago that Prime Minister al-Maliki was said to have remarked to the U.S. ambassador, I consider myself a friend of the U.S. but I'm not America's man in Iraq.

Today it became clear that the feeling is very much mutual. A leaked memo from the desk of Stephen Hadley, President Bush's national security advisor, shows that top American officials are skeptical of al-Maliki's ability to lead Iraq into peace and stability.

Michael Gordon of the New York Times broke the story. And Michael, is the feeling that al-Maliki isn't the right man for the job or might it just be the case that the job is all but impossible for any man?

Mr. MICHAEL GORDON (Military Correspondent, New York Times): Well one thing that's striking about the memo, which was based on a trip to Baghdad by Steve Hadley, the national security advisor and several of his aides, is that they're not talking about replacing al-Maliki.

I mean, the concept seems to be that, for better or for worse, he's the Iraqi leader with whom the United States needs to work and are looking for a way to work with him.

However, they're concerned that he may be following more of a Shiite agenda than an Iraqi agenda. What's very interesting though about the memo is that Mr. Hadley and his team came back from Baghdad unclear as to who Mr. al-Maliki really is.

I mean, is he someone who wants to do the right thing but he simply doesn't have the means to carry it out in Iraq because he's thwarted by other elements in the government? Is he simply saying the things he thinks we want to hear but doesn't have any intention of carrying out this program? Or is he misled by some of the people around him who are from the Da'Wah party?

All of these possibilities are laid out in the Hadley memo. They're not sure who al-Maliki really is.

PESCA: Because the prime minister, the leader of Iraq, is in a situation where to be the leader you have to have the support of the Shiites. But on the other hand you still have to be able to stand up to the Shiites. I wonder if anyone can do that. I wonder if the Bush administration thinks anyone can do that.

Mr. GORDON: They're operating on the assumption that it can be done. The concept is you need to put pressure on them but also strengthen him somehow and strengthen his coalition somehow.

PESCA: Tell us some specifics about what's left in the U.S. tool chest.

Mr. GORDON: One thing that's pointed out in the memo is that the Americans should go to the Saudis and try to get them to use their influence with the Saudi tribes in Iraq.

Well you saw that Vice President Cheney was recently in Saudi Arabia. So they seem to be doing that.

There is certainly a military option in the sense that you could increase forces in the Baghdad area. The memo says there are not really enough troops in Baghdad to secure the city.

Well you could do that on a short-term basis as part of a package of political and economic and military steps. Really what they're talking about, though, is trying to reengineer the political coalition in Iraq that supports Mr. al-Maliki.

PESCA: There was also a recommendation in the memo that was Clintonesque. Just like Clinton vowed to have a cabinet that looked like America it said that al-Maliki should reshape his own staff so it looks like Iraq.

Mr. GORDON: In principle he's committed to a unity government. And Iraq is a country that includes Sunnis who used to be the ruling minority. If you're trying to deflate the insurgency there has to be some process of reconciliation.

Well al-Maliki's committed to this in principle. That's what he tells the Americans. But really the theme of the Hadley memo is al-Maliki talks the talk but he doesn't yet walk the walk. And they're looking for very concrete actions for him to take. And they're suggesting actions for him to take.

PESCA: I don't expect you to give up a source or speak to motivations but is it safe to say that the New York Times got this story because someone in the White House wanted to light a fire under al-Maliki?

Mr. GORDON: We did publish the entire memo. And the memo speaks for itself. And I think the memo really is a window into the inner workings of the Bush administration and how it thinks about the problem.

And it's interesting to contrast what they're saying to themselves about al-Maliki with what they say publicly about al-Maliki when they talk to the press core at the White House.

PESCA: Michael Gordon is military correspondent for the New York Times and co-author of “Cobra II.” Thanks very much, Michael.

Mr. GORDON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.