TSR: "What choice does Prime Minister Maliki have?"
WOLF BLITZER: But let's turn now to our CNN exclusive.
The Iraqi prime minister's stern message to the United States and Iran to simply keep their would-be war out of his backyard. Nouri Al-Maliki's very, very strong comments today are driving home fears of a wider war in the region.
CNN's Michael Ware is joining us from Baghdad with more on his exclusive interview -- Michael.
MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, in an exclusive interview today with Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, the Iraqi leader said that Iranian forces have been targeting American troops. And he now worries that his country is becoming a proxy battleground between Tehran and Washington.
(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)
WARE: Is American intelligence wrong when it says Iran is working to kill American soldiers in your country?
NOURI AL-MALIKI, IRAQI PRIME MINISTER (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I didn't say it does not exist and the Americans, when they say that their intelligence is saying that Iranians are killing their soldiers, it means their intelligence is based on information that they got. And this is not an obscure thing.
There is a struggle between Iran and America and we have told the Iranians and the Americans, we know that you have a problem with each other, but we're asking you, please, solve your problems outside of Iraq.
We do not want the American forces to take Iraq as a field to attack Iran or Syria. And we will not accept Iran to use Iraq to attack the American forces.
But does this not exist?
It exists and I assure you it exists. But it is based on the struggle between the two countries. And from our side, we're trying to stop the effort to have a struggle in Iraq. We are always encouraging the two sides to negotiate and to try to find an agreement away from Iraq.
Iran and America -- we are ready to pay efforts to solve the problems between them, if it is possible. But not on the account of Iraq. Iraq has nothing to do with the American-Iranian struggle. And we will not let Iran play a role against the American Army and we will not allow America to play a role against the Iranian Army and everyone should respect the sovereignty of Iraq.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
WARE: Wolf, indeed, the prime minister said that all of Iraq's neighbors -- from Turkey to Syria to Jordan to Saudi Arabia -- want to interfere in Iraq's internal affairs.
BLITZER: Michael, were you surprised that the prime minister, Nouri Al-Maliki, was effectively equating the Iranian president, Ahmadinejad, with the U.S. president, George W. Bush?
WARE: Well, the prime minister is certainly a man caught in the middle between these two powers, represented by Washington and Tehran; by two presidents.
He's straddling a very difficult divide. His government exists only through the intervention of the United States. He is propped up by U.S. forces and Washington's support, yet he shares a very important border with Iran.
Iran has enormous strategic interest in this country. And in the past, during Saddam's regime, when the prime minister was in opposition, Iran supported his party and many other Shia opposition parties.
BLITZER: Because, you know, so much of this new U.S. strategy depends on Nouri Al-Maliki cooperating with the U.S. And when so many people here in Washington, including the president's own Republican supporters, hear Nouri Al-Maliki basically say to the United States and to Iran, keep your proxy war out of Iraq, they're going to say why is the United States supporting this guy if, effectively, he's aligning himself at least in part with Iran?
WARE: Well, to some degree. I mean this is real politick -- what choice does Prime Minister Maliki have?
And certainly U.S. officials and American commanders here on the ground have been saying since the beginning, since the invasion in 2003, that they recognize that, yes, Iran does have interests in Iraq, given its shared border and the cross-pollination of the Shia people over that border, and that also they would like to foster a healthy relationship between Baghdad and Tehran.
However, what we've seen is this fierce competition for influence being waged between Washington and Tehran. And we're actually seeing it being fought out militarily. So this relationship is veering into very dangerous waters -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Michael Ware reporting for us from Baghdad.
Michael, thanks very much.
WOLF BLITZER: From high tech weapons to highly sophisticated insurgent attacks that smack of outside help, are these the signs that Iran is already fighting it out with the United States in Iraq?
An ominous new turn in the Iraq War, and now Iraq's leader is weighing in with some harsh words for both sides.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NOURI AL-MALIKI, IRAQI PRIME MINISTER (through translator): Iran is Shiite and we are Shiite, and we have many Shiites in Iraq. But this does not justify Iran interfering in Iraq. We respect this relationship. We will not allow such interference to exist.
Also, Iraq is an Arab country. The majority are Arabs. But this also will not justify for Arab countries to interfere in Iraq.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: And joining us now from Baghdad, our correspondent, Michael Ware -- Michael, you had an exclusive interview with the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri Al-Maliki, in which he basically was telling President Bush and the U.S. administration "keep your so-called proxy war against Iran outside of Iraq."
What's his bottom line message?
MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, essentially what he's trying to do is preserve the sovereignty of his government. Yet at the same time, to some degree, he's trying to keep two parties, equally powerful here in this country -- arguably, two masters -- happy.
His government only exists because of American intervention here in Iraq. They benefited from American supported elections. Yet the party of Prime Minister Al-Maliki during opposition, long decades of opposition against Saddam, was supported by Iran. And, indeed, we see that many of the factions that have a stranglehold on this government continue to be supported, politically and militarily, according to American intelligence, by Iranian armed forces.
So Prime Minister Maliki is in a very precarious position.
However, what we see is that amidst this campaign of increasing American accusations against Iran with regard to its interference here in Iraq, we see the Iraqi prime minister siding with American intelligence. He says that, yes, Iran is working to kill American soldiers.
Nonetheless, he says, "take your rivalry and get it out of my country."
BLITZER: He also said in the interview with you that he thinks he's stronger than any of the militias in Iraq, including Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.
Is he right?
WARE: Well, in the short answer, no, he's not. I mean this government which he heads is little more than an alliance or a coalition of armed militias, one of which, the Mahdi militia, the Mahdi Army, headed by anti-American rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, is responsible for putting him into power.
Now, it has been argued by American commanders and others that the prime minister has shielded Muqtada himself and his militia and their strongholds from American operations. Indeed, we saw during the recent State of the Union Address, President Bush calling on the Iraqi government to lift these unnecessary limitations on military operations. That was obviously a message regarding Muqtada al-Sadr and his militia.
So this is a very, very difficult time and we're seeing a lot of factors coming into play in a very difficult crunch right now.
BLITZER: And he also told you, Michael, that he believes that he and the Iraqi government, the Iraqi military, can take over security operations, security responsibility for all of Iraq in three to six months. Now, that sounds very, very ambitious.
Is he right on that front?
WARE: Oh, that's beyond ambitious, Wolf. I mean whilst Washington is in a mood for withdrawal and this message would very much be welcomed, the prime minister matched this claim with a challenge to America. He said, "we can assume control in three to six months if America steps up the arming and training of our security forces."
Yet, these are security forces that are penetrated heavily by the Shia militias, which American intelligence says are linked to Iran.
At the same time, the prime minister says whilst he believes in the new strategy that has been devised between his government and the Bush administration, he nonetheless leaves the door ajar for the possibility that there may be a future need for an escalation, an increase in U.S. troops numbers. And that's something people in America certainly do not want to hear.
BLITZER: Good work today, Michael.
Good to have you back in Baghdad.
Michael Ware, an exclusive interview with the prime minister of Iraq, Nouri Al-Maliki.
Thanks very much.
WARE: Thank you, Wolf.