Early in 2006, as the civil war grew fiercer, the American Ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, was summoned to a videoconference with President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair, of the U.K. In parliamentary elections the previous December, a coalition of Shiite parties had won the most votes. But their nominee for Prime Minister, the incumbent, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, was struggling to form a government. An avuncular, bookish figure, Jaafari had infuriated Bush with his indecisiveness, amiably presiding over the sectarian bloodbath that had followed the recent bombing of a major Shiite shrine.
During the videoconference, Bush asked Khalilzad, “Can you get rid of Jaafari?”
“Yes,” Khalilzad replied, “but it will be difficult.”
For several days, Khalilzad told me, he worked to block Jaafari from securing a parliamentary majority, and finally he succeeded. But, as a condition for withdrawing quietly, Jaafari insisted that Iraq’s next Prime Minister come from his party, the Islamist group known as Dawa, which for five decades had fought tenaciously for Shiite interests. Ali al-Adeeb, a well-liked party official, seemed to be a logical candidate. But Khalilzad was troubled by Adeeb; his father was Iranian, and many Iraqis were already convinced that Iran secretly controlled their country. “He’s of Persian blood,” Khalilzad said. “This is what they believe.”
Frustrated, Khalilzad turned to the C.I.A. analyst assigned to his office, a fluent Arabic speaker whose job was to know Iraq’s leaders. “Can it be that, in this country of thirty million people, the choice of Prime Minister is either Jaafari, who is incompetent, or Ali Adeeb, who is Iranian? Isn’t there anyone else?”
“I have a name for you,” the C.I.A. officer said. “Maliki.”
Among the Americans, Maliki was largely unknown, though he served on the committee charged with purging the Iraqi government of former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. “He’s clean,” the C.I.A. officer said; he wasn’t corrupt, and he had no apparent connection to terrorist activities. “We haven’t got any evidence on him.” And, unlike Jaafari, Maliki was “a tough guy,” seemingly able to defy the Iranian regime.
“Let me meet him,” Khalilzad said.
That night, during a long dinner at the American Embassy, Khalilzad asked Maliki if he’d considered becoming Prime Minister. Khalilzad recalled, laughing, that Maliki gave a startled jump. But, as the two men talked, Maliki said that he could indeed secure the votes, and so, as the dinner broke up, well past midnight, Khalilzad told an aide to get the White House on the phone. “We let Washington know there was a change of plans,” Khalilzad said. Sunni and Kurdish politicians endorsed his candidacy. Within three months, Maliki had become Iraq’s Prime Minister.