A key aide says Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's relations with Gen. David Petraeus are so poor the Iraqi leader may ask Washington to withdraw the overall U.S. commander from his Baghdad post.
Iraq's foreign minister calls the relationship "difficult." Petraeus, who says their ties are "very good," acknowledges expressing his "full range of emotions" at times with al-Maliki. U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who meets with both at least weekly, concedes "sometimes there are sporty exchanges."
It seems less a clash of personality than of policy. The Shiite Muslim prime minister has reacted most sharply to the American general's tactic of enlisting Sunni militants, presumably including past killers of Iraqi Shiites, as allies in the fight against Al Qaeda here.
An associate said al-Maliki once, in discussion with President Bush, even threatened to counter this by arming Shiite militias.
History shows that the strain of war often turns allies into uneasy partners. The reality of how these allies get along may lie somewhere between the worst and best reports about the relationship, one central to the future of Iraq and perhaps to the larger Middle East.
A tangle of issues confronts them, none with easy solutions:
— Al-Maliki, a Shiite activist who spent the Saddam Hussein years in exile, hotly objects to the recent U.S. practice of recruiting tribal groups tied to the Sunni insurgency for the fight against the Sunni extremists of Al Qaeda, deemed "Enemy No. 1" by the Americans. His loud complaints have won little but a U.S. pledge to let al-Maliki's security apparatus screen the recruits.
— Aides say the Iraqi leader also has spoken bitterly about delivery delays of promised U.S. weapons and equipment for his forces.
— Petraeus, meanwhile, must deal with an Iraqi military and police force, nominally under al-Maliki's control, that often acts out of sectarian, namely Shiite, interests, and not national Iraqi interests. He faces a significant challenge in persuading al-Maliki to shed his ties to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who runs the Mahdi Army militia.
— On the political front, Crocker is grappling with the prime minister's seeming foot-dragging or ineffectiveness in pushing through an oil-industry law and other legislation seen as critical benchmarks by the U.S. government. Reporting to Congress in September, Crocker may have to explain such Iraqi inaction while U.S. troops are fighting and dying to give al-Maliki political breathing space.
First word of strained relations began leaking out with consistency earlier this month.
Sami al-Askari, a key aide to al-Maliki and a member of the prime minister's Dawa Party, said the policy of incorporating one-time Sunni insurgents into the security forces shows Petraeus has a "real bias and it bothers the Shiites," whose communities have been targeted by Sunnis in Iraq's sectarian conflict.
"It is possible that we may demand his removal," al-Askari said.
A lawmaker from the al-Sadr bloc, who wouldn't allow use of his name because of the political sensitivity of the matter, said al-Maliki once told Petraeus: "I can't deal with you anymore. I will ask for someone else to replace you."
Such a request isn't likely to get much of a hearing in Washington, where the Bush administration presents Petraeus as one general who can improve the Iraq situation.
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told Newsweek magazine the Petraeus-al-Maliki relationship is "difficult." For one thing, the Americans retain control of the Iraqi military. "The prime minister cannot just pick up the phone and have Iraqi army units do what he says. Maliki needs more leverage," Zebari said.
The prime minister has complained to President Bush about the policy of arming Sunnis, said the Sadrist lawmaker.
"He told Bush that if Petraeus continues doing that, he would arm Shiite militias. Bush told al-Maliki to calm down," according to this parliament member, who said he was told of the exchange by al-Maliki.
In Washington, White House officials who have sat in on Bush's video conferences with al-Maliki denied that exchange took place.
In a public outburst earlier this month, al-Maliki said American forces should leave Iraq and turn over security to Iraqi troops. He quickly backpedaled, but the damage was done.
"There is no leader in the world that is under more pressure than Nouri al-Maliki, without question. Sometimes he reflects that frustration. I don't blame him," Crocker told The Associated Press.
"We are dealing with existential issues. There are no second-tier problems," said the veteran Middle East diplomat. "And we all feel very deeply about what we're trying to get done. So, yeah, sometimes there are sporty exchanges. And believe me, I've had my share of them.
"That in no way means, in my view, strained relations," Crocker said. "Wrestling with the things we're all wrestling with here, it would almost be strange if you didn't get a little passionate from time to time."
Petraeus called his relations with al-Maliki "very good ... and that's the truth." But he acknowledged, "We have not pulled punches with each other."
In an interview with the AP, the U.S. commander noted that more than 3,600 U.S. military personnel have given their lives in Iraq, "and where we see something that could unhinge the progress that our soldiers and their soldiers are fighting to make ... or jeopardize some of the very hard-fought gains that we have made, I'm going to speak up. And I have on occasion. And on a couple of occasions have demonstrated the full range of emotions."