Iraq’s Prime Minister must enact long-delayed laws and reforms seen as key to national reconciliation for he may find the next U.S. leader less sympathetic to his government's struggles than Bush, the U.S President said Wednesday, according to a senior Iraqi official.
The private comment, relayed on condition of anonymity to The Associated Press by the official who was present at the closed meeting between the two men, reflected the challenges confronting Bush and al-Maliki as they met on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday.
Both are under pressure from their respective citizens and lawmakers to prove that the U.S.'s continued presence is justified in the wake of a political and security situation that, on the surface, shows little sign of improvement four years after Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled.
In their public remarks, however, the two leaders sounded a unified voice after their first meeting in the wake of the Sept. 16 fatal shooting of Iraqis, allegedly by Blackwater USA security contractors guarding a U.S. diplomatic convoy.
Bush noted that al-Maliki and others in his administration are "dedicated to getting good law out" of the parliament. "We're with you, prime minister," he said. Al-Maliki, meanwhile, said their talks focused on "mutual goals" of defeating terrorism and building a stronger Iraq.
The image of an equitable, if tenuous, political symbiosis masked the kind of frustrations that surface only behind closed doors. Al-Maliki referenced the shooting of the Iraqis by pointedly stating in private that the sovereignty of Iraq must be respected, according to another Iraqi official present at the meeting, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
Bush, in turn, reminded al-Maliki that the next U.S. president may not be as understanding of, or sympathetic to, the Iraqi's domestic struggles, the first official said.
Currently, those struggles include defections from the government, the stalling of implementing much-needed legal and constitutional reforms as a political power play, as well as corruption, militias and terrorism.
"The task before us is great," al-Maliki conceded, speaking before reporters. "The Iraqi side is fully prepared to assume all the responsibilities and work for a better future for all of Iraq."
The comments project a confidence that many of Bush and al-Maliki's Congressional critics - Democrats and some Republicans - have said only serves to misdirect from the reality on the ground in the war-torn country.
With the 2008 U.S. presidential elections upcoming, both parties have latched on to the Iraq debate as a bell-weather of their foreign policy credentials.
The U.S. president seized on the issue of stalled legislation, impressing on al-Maliki the need to exert more effort to move key bills such as a draft oil law, as well as the pending provincial powers law, which tackles the balance of power between the central government and the provinces.
The "political parties in Iraq must understand the importance of getting these laws passed," Bush said, speaking after the meeting. "Some politicians may be trying to block the law to gain special advantage. And these parties have got to understand that it's in the interests of Iraq to get good law passed."
Six Sunni Arab ministers quit al-Maliki's government in August over his failure to meet demands including releasing security detainees not charged with specific crimes, disbanding militias and wider inclusion in decision making on security issues. Only one has returned, and a major Sunni bloc, the Iraq Accordance Front, still maintains al-Maliki is stonewalling them.
Al-Maliki acknowledged political differences remain, saying "the future of Iraq goes through the gates of national reconciliation, of political agreement."
But the Iraqi premier said the government feels "that development and progress is occurring everyday" in the country's political and security challenges. And, while delays have surfaced in passing some laws, "we continue to work on the basis of the existing law and we continue to work to have those laws passed."
Neither man referenced the Blackwater incident directly in his public remarks.
Behind closed doors, though, al-Maliki told Bush such incidents "are an embarrassment for us and you before the Iraqi people," the first Iraqi official said.
The Blackwater attack is the focus of a joint U.S.-Iraqi investigative committee headed by that country's defense minister.
Iraqi officials have said the shootings highlight the need for new guidelines governing the work of such companies which routinely guard diplomatic convoys. This was the case in the Sept. 16 shootings, which the company has said came in response to hostile fire and targeted insurgents. Iraqis said those killed were civilians.
Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said al-Maliki said behind closed doors that Iraqi sovereignty must be respected. The two agreed there should be "better cooperation and coordination in these operations," Hadley said.
The killings, in tandem with the detention of Iranians in Iraq by U.S. forces and what Iraqis complain are heavy-handed tactics by the Americans, form a key component of Iraq's concerns that its sovereignty is being routinely flouted, three years after power was passed over to an interim Iraqi government by the U.S.
Hadley said the sovereignty issue is one that "will need, of course, to be addressed as we define the long-term relationship between the United States and Iraq."