NEW YORK – Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki walked a fine line Sunday: confronting his American backers over what he sees as violations of Iraq's sovereignty while stressing that his relations are rock solid with the country on whose support he still relies.
"Success is shared," he said in an interview with The Associated Press, referring to his deeply intertwined partnership with President Bush and the U.S. government. "God forbid, failure is also shared."
In a half-hour talk conducted in his Manhattan hotel suite, the 57-year-old politician from Iraq's Shiite heartland said it is unacceptable that U.S. security contractors would kill Iraqi civilians, a reference to a Sept. 16 shooting incident involving company Blackwater USA that left at least 11 Iraqis dead.
He also decried a recent arrest by U.S. forces of an Iranian citizen who had been invited into the country by Iraqi officials.
Al-Maliki, who has been leading his shaky, strife-worn Cabinet since May 2006, insisted that Iraq is making progress. He said next year will bring still more improvement to ordinary Iraqis' lives after four years of war.
In the country to attend the U.N. General Assembly, al-Maliki is on his first visit to the United States since the recent reports to Congress by Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker gave his 16-month-old government a mixed review. In spite of that, he appeared to be in no mood to brook challenges to his leadership.
A confident tone, evident throughout the interview, reflected how the Iraqi leader seems to be taking a firm stand in defense of his government's achievements, even as criticism in the U.S. and elsewhere mounts.
He repeatedly referred to Iraq's sovereignty and how the government was answerable only to the people, in what could be read as a discreet way of telling others that Iraq's security and prosperity will be Baghdad's concern long after foreign forces have been withdrawn.
Al-Maliki stressed that his country has the main duty to protect its people and to decide whom it will or will not let into the country. When U.S. contractors shoot at Iraqi citizens or U.S. troops arrest guests of the government from Iran, that is "unacceptable," he said.
The shooting deaths of civilians at Nisoor Square in Baghdad on Sept. 16 — allegedly at the hands of Blackwater USA security contractors — are among several "serious challenges to the sovereignty of Iraq" by the company, he said. In Arabic, he used the word "tajawiz" which also can be translated as "affront," "violation" or an intentional challenge.
He also complained about the U.S. detention of an Iranian Thursday in northern Iraq who was accused by the military of smuggling weapons to Shiite militias for use against American troops.
Al-Maliki condemned the detention and said it was his understanding that the man had been invited to Iraq by the Sulaimaniyah governorate.
"The government of Iraq is an elected one and sovereign. When it gives a visa, it is responsible for the visa," he said. "We consider the arrest ... of this individual who holds an Iraqi visa and a (valid) passport to be unacceptable."
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, demanded the Iranian's release on Saturday, saying he was a member of an official delegation that was in the autonomous Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah with the full knowledge of the Iraqi government and local authorities.
During the interview, al-Maliki made no direct reference to the recent debates in Washington that have included attempts by Democrats in Congress — regularly thwarted by the Republican minority — to begin to bring home the 170,000 U.S. troops in Iraq earlier than the Bush administration proposes.
Any sniping from politicians does not bother him, he said, as long as he has the support of President Bush and the administration. He also seemed confident of that backing in the aftermath of weeks of intense debate over Iraq policy in the United States.
Al-Maliki, who will meet with Bush on the sidelines of the General Assembly, sought to accentuate the positive.
"The successes realized and the positive climate we have created between the Iraqi government and the multinational forces gives us a solid ... base from which we will be able to take greater steps," he promised.
Al-Maliki also expressed optimism that he will get his Cabinet back up to strength after the walkout in early August by the mainly Sunni Iraqi Accordance Front. He has challenged those Sunni politicians to come back to his government, and said in the interview that if they continue to boycott, he may enlist other Sunnis in their place: specifically the sheiks who have joined U.S. forces in fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq militants in Anbar province.
"We are waiting for clarity from the ministers in the Accordance Front," he said of his attempts to reconstitute his Cabinet. "If they do not return, we will go to the participation of the sons of the (Sunni) tribes."
"We cannot remain with ministerial seats that are empty, and we are in need of the efforts of the ministries and the ministers to provide services (to the Iraqis). We want to announce that 2008 is the year of services for the Iraqi people."
He called on some Arab countries to give the Iraqi government more support and to stop interference in Iraq's internal affairs by closing their borders to the movement of arms or anti-government insurgents.
"The issue of relations with Arab countries has gone through periods of uncertainty," he conceded. "But with the passage of time, the Iraqi government has proven that it is present, supported, strong and represents the will of the Iraqi people.
"What we need from the other Arab countries is a lack of interference in (our) internal affairs."
Maliki is staying under immense security in a luxury hotel not far from the Statue of Liberty and the site of the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attacks, which provided the catalyst for the U.S. decision to invade Iraq.
He brought a large entourage with him; dozens of Iraqi visitors including some senior Iraqi officials could be seen milling on the floor of his hotel and in the lobby.