Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was battling to keep his job on Monday, deploying forces across Baghdad as some parliamentary allies sought a replacement and the United States warned him not to obstruct efforts to form a new government.
Widely accused of a partisan obstinacy that has fuelled the communal violence tearing Iraq apart, the Shi’ite Muslim premier went on television late on Sunday to denounce the ethnic Kurdish president for delaying the constitutional process of naming a prime minister following a parliamentary election in late April.
However, President Fouad Masoum won a rapid endorsement from Washington. With Sunni fighters from the Islamic State making new gains over Kurdish forces north of Baghdad, the United States renewed its call for Iraqis to form a consensus government to try and end bloodshed that has prompted the first U.S. air strikes since the U.S. occupation ended in 2011.
And in pointed remarks aimed at Maliki, Secretary of State John Kerry said: “The government formation process is critical in terms of sustaining stability and calm in Iraq, and our hope is that Mr. Maliki will not stir those waters.
“There will be little international support of any kind whatsoever for anything that deviates from the legitimate constitution process that is in place and being worked on now.”
Complicating efforts to propose a replacement from among fellow Shi’ites, who appear to have some support from both the country’s leading cleric and from the Shi’ite establishment of neighbouring Iran, the country’s highest court ruled that Maliki’s State of Law bloc is the biggest in the new parliament.
That, a senior Iraqi official said, was “very problematic” for attempts to have President Masoud offer the premiership to an alternative candidate to Maliki – an alternative that one senior member of his party said had been close to being chosen.
As Shi’ite militias and security forces personally loyal to Maliki deployed across the capital, the prime minister made a defiant late-night address saying he would pursue Masoum in court for violating the constitution by missing a deadline to ask the leader of the biggest party to form a new government.
However, the deputy speaker of parliament, Haider al-Abadi from Maliki’s own Dawa party, tweeted that the broader State of Law bloc was close to nominating a new premier. Abadi has himself been cited as a possible alternative.
Serving in a caretaker capacity since the inconclusive election on April 30, Maliki has defied calls by Sunnis, Kurds, some fellow Shi’ites, regional power broker Iran and Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric to step aside for a less polarising figure.
Critics accuse Maliki of pursuing a sectarian agenda that has sidelined minority Sunni Muslims and prompted some of them to support Islamic State militants, whose latest sweep through northern Iraq has alarmed the Baghdad government and its Western allies, prompting U.S. air strikes in recent days.
“Maliki knows it is very difficult to gain a third term and is playing a high-stakes game to try and ensure his authority and influence continue into the new government, despite who may officially become prime minister,” said Kamran Bokhari, a Middle East specialist at analysis firm Stratfor.
MALIKI UNDER FIRE
Washington seems to be losing patience with Maliki, who has placed Shi’ite political loyalists in key positions in the army and military and drawn comparisons with ousted Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, the man he plotted against from exile for years.
A State Department spokeswoman reaffirmed Washington’s support for a “process to select a prime minister who can represent the aspirations of the Iraqi people by building a national consensus and governing in an inclusive manner”.
“We reject any effort to achieve outcomes through coercion or manipulation of the constitutional or judicial process,” she said in a statement, adding that the United States “fully supports” Masoum as guarantor of Iraq’s constitution.
U.S. President Barack Obama has urged Iraqi politicians to form a more inclusive government that can counter the growing threat from the Islamic State.
But Maliki, an unknown when he first took office in 2006 with help from the U.S. occupation administration, is digging in. The Interior Ministry told police to be on high alert in connection with Maliki’s speech, a police official told Reuters.
As residents saw police with armoured vehicles block roads and set up checkpoints around Baghdad early on Monday, another police source said there was an “unprecedented deployment” of army commandos and special forces to secure the capital.
MORE U.S. AIR STRIKES
The Islamic State has capitalised on the political deadlock and sectarian tensions, making fresh gains after arriving in the north of the country in June from Syria.
The group, which sees Iraq’s majority Shi’ites as infidels who deserve to be killed, has ruthlessly moved through one town after another, using tanks and heavy weapons it seized from soldiers who have fled in their thousands.
On Monday, police said the fighters had seized the town of Jalawla, 115 km (70 miles) northeast of Baghdad, after driving out the forces of the autonomous Kurdish regional government.
On Sunday, a government minister said Islamic State militants had killed hundreds of minority Yazidis, burying some alive and taking women as slaves.
Human rights minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani accused the Sunni Muslim militants – who have ordered the community they regard as “devil worshippers” to convert to Islam or die – of celebrating what he called a “a vicious atrocity”.
No independent confirmation was available of the killings. Thousands of Yazidis have taken refuge in the past week on the arid heights of Mount Sinjar, close to the Syrian border.
The bloodshed could increase pressure on Western powers to do more to help tens of thousands of people, including many from religious and ethnic minorities, who have fled the Islamic State’s offensive. Military action and aid are on the agenda.
The U.S. Central Command said drones and jet aircraft had hit Islamic State armed trucks and mortar positions on Sunday near Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region.
That marked a third successive day of U.S. air strikes, and Central Command said they were aimed at protecting Kurdish peshmerga forces as they face off against the militants near Arbil, the site of a U.S. consulate and a U.S.-Iraqi joint military operations centre.
WOMEN HELD AS SLAVES
Consolidating a territorial grip that includes tracts of Syrian desert and stretches toward Baghdad, the Islamic State’s local and foreign fighters have swept into areas where non-Sunni groups live. While they persecute non-believers in their path, that does not seem to be the main motive for their latest push.
The group wants to establish religious rule in a caliphate straddling Syria and Iraq and has tapped into widespread anger among Iraq’s Sunnis at a democratic system dominated by the Shi’ite Muslim majority following the U.S. invasion of 2003.
Iraqis have slipped back into sectarian bloodshed not seen since 2006-2007. Nearly every day police report kidnappings, bombings and execution-style killings. The Sunni militants routed Kurds in their latest advance with tanks, artillery, mortars and vehicles seized from fleeing Iraqi troops.
The militants are now just 30 minutes’ drive from Arbil. In their latest sweep through the north, the Sunni insurgents seized a fifth oil field, several more villages and the biggest dam in Iraq – which could let them flood cities or cut off water and power supplies – hoisting their black flags along the way.
After spending more than $2 trillion on its war in Iraq and losing thousands of soldiers, the United States must now find ways to tackle a group that is even more hardline than al-Qaeda and has threatened to march on Baghdad.