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Hadley's Memo on Maliki Reveals U.S. Analysis

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

More now on the Iraqi Prime Minister and National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley's leaked memo about him. Nancy Youssef is Baghdad bureau chief for McClatchy newspapers. She's met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki before and after he took his current position and she, like our David Greene, is in Amman for the visit of President Bush. Welcome to the program. You're familiar with the memo - you've seen the memo that was published in the New York Times today?

Ms. NANCY YOUSSEF (Baghdad Bureau Chief, McClatchy Newspapers): Yes, Robert, I have.

SIEGEL: First of all, generally do you think that the national security adviser understands Prime Minister al-Maliki's situation in Baghdad? Do you think he's got it right, essentially?

Ms. YOUSSEF: I'm not sure. I think that he's having a tough time understanding the challenges that al-Maliki is facing and really the core of his beliefs. At one point he proposes that we should encourage al-Maliki to be a part of a moderate political process but in Iraq, moderate means secular. And al-Maliki, who is a member of the Dawa Party, which is a very religious organization, it calls for the Shia religious leadership to direct the government. And so I don't know that he understands the complexity of what it is and how many ways things could sort of splinter and what al-Maliki is balancing both in terms of his beliefs and the pressures that he's under, and the reality on the ground.

SIEGEL: The Stephen Hadley memo includes the following line, speaking of al-Maliki, his intentions are good but the reality on the streets of Baghdad suggests al-Maliki is either ignorant of what's going on, misrepresenting his intentions or his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into action. That is, he's either out of it, lying to the Americans or is just weak. Of those three, would you favor any particular explanation for his actions?

Ms. YOUSSEF: No. I think it's a combination of things, those three and a lot of other things. One could argue that one of the reasons al-Maliki is weak is because the constitution makes him weak. The constitution essentially calls for him to get approval from everybody to do anything.

Is he lying? I don't know. I think he is trying to balance a very fragile and frail political system and so he has a sort of (unintelligible) militia back at him because there aren't enough - Iraqi security forces aren't strong enough.

But if he gets rid of the militia, he weakens himself. And so again, there are just a lot of intricate things that are involved but I don't know that the memo really reflected - it's not as linear on the ground, I don't think, as it appears to be in the memo.

SIEGEL: Here's another line from the memo. It says that even if al-Maliki has the right intentions, he may simply not have the political or security capabilities to take the steps which had been mentioned earlier in the memo which risk alienating his narrow Sadrist political base, meaning Moqtada al-Sadr, the militia leader. Is that observation fair, that he has a narrow base among the supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr?

Ms. YOUSSEF: Well, the problem is that the Sadr base is growing more and more every day as the security situation worsens. People who never would have thought of themselves as militiamen join because the Sadr City bombing killed 200 people or because they feel attacked by the Sunnis, or because they feel that they are vulnerable. That is, they're not sort of militia at the heart but they feel vulnerable in their own streets and their own neighborhoods. So I think it's dangerous to sort of call it narrow because it's changing and evolving and growing. Moqtada's base is growing, even among moderate Shia. So I think it's a hard assertion to make.

SIEGEL: How do you think people in the streets of Baghdad, say, or for that matter elsewhere in Iraq, regard al-Maliki? Is it as a weak leader in the sense that Stephen Hadley sees him, as either weak or constrained, whatever the explanation might be? Or is he seen otherwise by the Iraqis?

Ms. YOUSSEF: You know, I think Iraqis in general, I think there's a real feeling that they want somebody, anybody, to come in and take control of their country. To take back control of the streets. To bring back law and order, one that doesn't involve torture and everything else that Saddam Hussein did but allows them the freedom to go to school, to go to work, to go out at night. So I almost think it's beyond al-Maliki. I think people are just really hungry for someone to lead them and to give them a sense of freedom.

SIEGEL: Well, Nancy Youssef, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. YOUSSEF: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Nancy Youssef, who is Baghdad bureau chief for McClatchy newspapers. She is in Amman, Jordan for the visit of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to meet there in the Jordanian capital with President Bush. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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