Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki began his state visit to Washington DC on Wednesday. As he is being whisked around his appointments at the White House, the State Department and elsewhere, Maliki has got be wondering, Who is in charge?

The Iraqis are sorting out by themselves the outstanding issues that separate them, as it should be. Nothing is gained with Biden coming to Baghdad as he did a few weeks ago and issuing fiery gaffes about how the U.S. is to sever diplomatic relations with Iraq should negotiations be prolonged. What this does is merely to defer the necessary concessions needed from all sides, as one recalcitrant group or another interprets Biden’s words as a carte blanche to hold out for a better deal.

Maliki’s chief concern should be to tell them all to butt out. A ship with so many stewards is bound to hit the shoals. Had he been a better statesman he would have figured out a way to play one side against the other, to Iraq’s advantage. But he is not that capable, so it remains to be hoped for that Maliki will manage to keep Washington’s internal office politics from spilling over into the cauldron of Iraq.

The best thing Washington could do for Iraq is to leave the Iraqis alone, and to make sure that Washington’s friends and enemies in the region do the same. Obama should leverage his charms to keep the Egyptians, Jordanians, Saudis and Turks at bay, while baring his fangs to scare away the Syrians and the Iranians. First and foremost, Obama should disabuse Syria and Iran from thinking that they can negotiate their bilateral standing with America by starting fires in Iraq.

It is in this vein that Washington’s decision to quietly shut down a key intelligence operation to keep tabs on the Iranians in November 2008 seems so misplaced and astonishing. The intelligence operation partnered up twenty five Iraqi intelligence agents with a like number of CIA agents. It began in late 2003, and its size remained the same. They were headquartered in a building separate from the Iraqi Intelligence Service HQ, and operated independently of any Iraqi oversight. Their chief mission was to track and, where possible, to offset Iran’s intelligence and operational footprint inside Iraq, and to follow leads back across the border into Tehran, Damascus and Beirut. As can be expected with such operations, some of its work is questionable; it partook in Iraqi politics, even exercising violence through a separate paramilitary arm, at times in an illegal and unethical manner. However, its work was crucial in keeping the Iranians—specifically the Iranian Revolutionary Guard which took the lead after mid-2004—on their toes.

By disbanding the operation in such a cavalier way, Washington denied itself and the Iraqis the opportunity to put a stop to Iran’s meddling. It is quite distressing to find that an operative as important as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (real name: Jamal al-Ibrahimi) is back in Baghdad under the tacit protection of Maliki’s security chief, Abu Ali al-Basri (real name: Adnan Ibrahim). Maliki does not have a choice when it comes to slamming down on Iranian toes even though he may want to be his own man, especially not without the Americans holding his back. So he is compelled to look the other way as the Iranians move in to fill the vacuum of America’s departure.

Maliki probably left Baghdad wondering who was in charge, an uncertainty that is actively debated among the political class in Baghdad. This much they seem to have figured out: President Barack Obama does not care to be in charge. So it is left to the second-tier principals to duke it out, for who gets to call the shots in Iraq is seen to be prime political turf in Washington.

The story begins within the State Department, as Secretary Hillary Clinton tries to steer the issue her way. Her chief impediment is Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Holbrooke’s acolyte, Christopher Hill, is the new U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, a position that he landed through his patron’s influence at the Oval Office, circumventing Hillary’s lair.

Then there is the nitty gritty security stuff that is the domain of the Robert Gates over at the Department of Defense, as well as the doyens of the Central Intelligence Agency. Both have their own visions for what ought to transpire, with the military under the command of General Ray Odierno in Baghdad staking out ground for his own subsidiary imprint.

Enter Vice President Joe Biden, also dispatched by Obama to play the role of ‘Iraq Czar’; a task that could have conveniently given the ‘Gaffester’ something to preoccupy himself with while the grown-ups sorted out America’s other business.

Biden, Hillary, Holbrooke, Gates, Odierno and the folks at Langley are tugging at Iraq hoping to claim the glory that Obama has forsaken. Iraq is the crowning jewel of their own legacies, or so they aspire.

The political will of the Iraqis in putting a stop to regional meddling is there, but it needs a dose of encouragement and support. Maybe whoever turns out to be in charge can give that reassurance to Maliki.

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