BAGHDAD – American influence has so dwindled in Iraq over the last several months that Iraqi lawmakers and political leaders say they no longer follow Washington's advice for forming a government.
Instead, Iraqis are turning to neighboring nations, and especially Iran, for guidance — casting doubt on the future of the American role in this strategic country after a grinding war that killed more than 4,400 U.S. soldiers.
"The Iraqi politicians are not responding to the U.S. like before. We don't pay great attention to them," Shiite lawmaker Sami al-Askari, a close ally of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said Thursday. "The weak American role has given the region's countries a greater sense of influence on Iraqi affairs."
Vice President Joe Biden, the administration's point man for Iraq, has doggedly lobbied Iraqi leaders, both on the phone and in six trips here over the past two years.
Iraqis, however, measure U.S. influence largely by its military presence, which dipped by threefold from the war's peak to 50,000 troops in late August. As a result, Baghdad is now brushing off U.S. urgings to slow-walk a new government instead of rushing one through that might cater to Iran.
"The Iranian ambassador has a bigger role in Iraq than Biden," said a prominent Kurdish lawmaker, Mahmoud Othman. He said the Americans "will leave Iraq with its problems, thus their influence has become weak."
One problem which could worsen as a result is the sectarian divide — particularly if the secular but Sunni-backed Iraqiya political coalition, which won the most votes in the March election, is left out of a new Shiite-led government led by al-Maliki.
Many Iraqis, particularly minority Sunnis, would view such a government as "blessed by Iran and evidence of America's relative weakness," analyst Michael Knights wrote on the website of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. This perception could lead to a surge in violence.
Washington, which has its hands full with the war in Afghanistan and the hunt in Pakistan for Osama bin Laden, sees Iraq as "the bane of everyone's existence lately," said one senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the diplomatic issues.
But Iraq cannot afford to ignore completely what Washington wants. For one, that could bring the end of U.S. help and financial backing to broker $13 billion worth of contracts for military equipment.
It also would all but dash any hopes by Baghdad to re-negotiate a security agreement that is set to expire at the end of 2011 — a needed step to keeping some U.S. forces in Iraq to continue training its fledgling air force and protect its borders. A senior Iraqi military official predicted the new government, once it is settled, ultimately will ask U.S. troops to remain beyond next year.
U.S. alliances with Mideast nations to which Baghdad seeks to cozy up also cement American influence in Iraq, said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center think tank in Doha.
"In that, I think the U.S. is still pretty well positioned in terms of getting its voice heard in Iraq," Shaikh said. But he agreed that the U.S. carries less sway in Baghdad than it used to: "If it was such an easy thing to exert influence, then wouldn't Iraq have had a government by now?"
More than seven months have passed since March 7 parliamentary elections failed to produce clear winners, and Iraqi politicians say they will pick new leaders on their own timetable.
Othman said the lengthy impasse, despite heavy U.S. pressure to form a government that includes all of Iraq's major political players, shows that Baghdad doesn't really care what Washington wants.
"Yes, the Americans have their view on how to form an Iraqi government," Askari agreed. "But it does not apply to the political powers on the ground and it is not effective."
U.S. officials initially encouraged the Iraqis to form a government quickly, but recently started pushing for a slowdown after it became apparent that a party led by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was poised to play a major role.
The U.S. clearly hopes to stall the formation of a new government long enough for the deal unravel between al-Maliki and al-Sadr, whose hardline Shiite followers are close to Iran.
But the days of the U.S. calling the shots in Iraq are long over — largely because of President Barack Obama's intent to scale back America's presence more than seven years after the invasion which ousted Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime.
That's led Iraqi leaders to reach out to Mideast neighbors for support and advice on brokering a new government. Leaders from rival political coalitions in the last several months have been to Iran, Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia on official visits. On Thursday, al-Maliki was in Ankara to meet with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
It is Iraq's newly warmed alliance with Iran that worries the United States.
In a development that may have assured him a second term, al-Maliki this month won al-Sadr's backing. And this week, top Iranian officials gave al-Maliki their clearest nod of support yet during his trip to Tehran.
"Our concerns about Iran and its meddling in Iraq's affairs are long-standing," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters in Washington this week. "But that said, we would expect the Iraqi government to work on behalf of its own citizens and not on behalf of another country."
In Cairo this week, al-Maliki predicted a new government will be formed soon. A senior Iraqi government official said that will happen regardless of whether the U.S. blesses it, though he acknowledged that Baghdad would be weak without American support. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.
"There is U.S. influence in the political process and forming of the government, but less so than before," said Sunni lawmaker Osama al-Nujaifi. "As they (the Americans) begin to withdraw their military, the Iranians are taking advantage of the empty space, and are ready to fill the vacuum."
Associated Press Writer Mazin Yahya contributed to this report.