In recent days Nouri Al-Maliki has been pushing the United States to set a firm timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. Many have hailed his sudden assertiveness as a sign that the Iraqis are ready to stand up and take responsibility for their own security, and in large part this perspective is enthusiastically embraced by a war-weary American public, anxious to end this long and arduous chapter in their nation’s history. And indeed, self-determination in Iraq cannot begin without the country’s leadership taking adversarial stands against the US (for strictly political reasons) flavored with nationalistic rhetoric.

However some are troubled by the seemingly self-destructive intentions of Al-Maliki, who now has designs on disrupting the Sunni alliance that helped pacify Anbar province, disarming the myriad militia factions within the nation and antagonizing Kurdish forces. At such a tenuous moment, Al-Maliki seems to be lighting the fuse on a sectarian powder-keg that could tear his country apart at the very moment it is most unified. The American administration is nervous and uncertain, to be sure, about Al-Maliki’s motives. If he is looking to burnish his image as a strong leader and a patriot, that’s all well and good. But how can he benefit from his country being plunged into a renewed, bloody street fight between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds that could end in his public lynching (literally)?

Speculation abounds that Al-Maliki, who frustrated the US last year by opening up dialogue with Tehran about peace-keeping assistance, is in Iran’s pocket. By demanding a US withdrawal that adheres to a specific timetable as only he could, they say, he is inviting the Iranians in to set up shop. This may be the answer to why he plans to challenge the Sunni and Kurdish militias, counting on (promised?) Iranian assistance to crack down on what would otherwise be an obvious losing battle for Al-Maliki’s armed forces as they currently stand. If this is the case, the US could have a serious problem on its hands.

But conspiracy theory aside, Al-Maliki in all likelihood is on a road to self-destruction. If he tries to challenge the militias at this critical time, his country will fall apart. And he should know that the Americans won’t let that happen, not after five long years of slow and bloody progress that has led them to the brink of victory with honor, and the promise of a return home. While direct American action against him is unconscionable, using some of the alliances they have developed with Sunni and Kurdish factions, who have a great deal to lose as well, could be sufficient to apply the political pressure needed to either remove Al-Maliki or get him to back off. This play has its obvious risks, however, and could upset the balance of Iraqi political power in a similarly destabilizing way. But if current talks between the US and Al-Maliki’s government over the withdrawal of American forces fall through, and the Iraqi Prime Minister makes aggressive moves toward minority factions in his country, the Bush administration may have little choice.

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