WASHINGTON - The United States is pushing for a new government in Iraq without Prime Minister
Nouri al-Maliki, the Shia leader it actually helped instal, indicating that he is unable to reconcile with the nation’s Sunni minority and stabilize country. Such a new government, U.S. officials say, would include the country’s Sunni and Kurdish communities and could help to stem Sunni support for the al Qaeda offshoot, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, that has seized control of Iraqi cities over the past two weeks. That, the officials argue, would help to unify the country and reverse its slide into sectarian division.
In the last two days, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Robert S. Beecroft and Brett McGurk, the senior State Department official on Iraq and Iran, have met with both Shiite and Sunni leaders in Iraq. They met with Osama Nujaifi, leader of the Sunni contingent United for Reform, and with Ahmed Chalabi, a potential Shiite candidate for prime minister, The New York Times said. ‘Brett and the ambassador met with Mr Nujaifi yesterday and they were open about this, they do not want Maliki to stay,’ Nabil al-Khashab, the senior political adviser to Nujaifi, said Thursday. ‘We will not allow a third term for the prime minister; they must change him if they want things to calm down,’ al-Khashab added.
Chalabi is a controversial figure in Iraq and the United States. A former oil minister in Iraq, Chalabi campaigned for the U.S. to strike former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein in the run-up to the Iraq War as part of the Iraqi National Congress (INC). That group was formed in the early 1990s for the purpose of overthrowing Saddam Hussein.
Iraqi forces were massing north of Baghdad on Friday, aiming to strike back at militants whose drive toward the capital prompted the United States to send military advisers to stiffen government resistance.
President Barack Obama offered up to 300 Americans to help coordinate the fight. But he held off granting a request for air strikes from the government and renewed a call for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to do more to overcome sectarian divisions that have fuelled resentment among the minority. Speculation that Maliki might be forced aside was heightened when the country’s senior Shia cleric urged a speedy formation of a new government following the ratification this week of the results of a parliamentary election held in April.
Iran has sent ‘small numbers’ of operatives into Iraq to bolster the Shiite-led government in Baghdad but there is no sign of a major deployment of army units, the Pentagon said Friday.
‘There are some Iranian revolutionary operatives in Iraq but I’ve seen no indication of ground forces or major units,’ spokesman Admiral John Kirby told a news conference, apparently referring to Tehran’s Quds force, the covert arm of the Revolutionary Guard Corps. His comments marked the first public confirmation by the US government that Iranian operatives had crossed into Iraq, where the Baghdad government is struggling to counter the swift advance of Sunni extremists.
When US troops occupied Iraq between 2003 to 2011, Washington accused Tehran of using the Quds force to support Shiite militia attacking American soldiers.
‘Their interference in Iraq is nothing new,’ Kirby said. But the United States and Iran now find themselves sharing a common interest in helping Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki fend off the onslaught by Sunni militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The Pentagon offered no further details on the nature of the Iranian presence or their operations, amid media reports that Tehran had launched a major effort to shore up Iraqi forces. ‘I’ll let the Iranians speak for their activities,’ he said. ‘We have indications that there are at least some operatives inside Iraq’ he said, saying the alleged deployment amounted to ‘small numbers’ of agents.
Australia on Friday said it has sent a small detachment of soldiers to protect its embassy in Baghdad in the face of an offensive by militant ISIL forces.
There does appear to be bipartisan support in the United States to get rid of al-Maliki. Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, and John McCain, a Republican, are among a number of lawmakers who have said the situation in Iraq can’t be resolved until al-Maliki steps down. But White House spokesman Jay Carney said Iraq’s leadership wasn’t up to the United States. ‘That’s not obviously for us to decide,’ he said in response to a question about whether al-Maliki should step down.
Vice President Biden spoke with al-Maliki on Wednesday, urging him to govern in an inclusive manner that would promote stability in Iraq’s population. Al-Maliki on Thursday said he won’t resign in exchange for U.S. airstrikes against militants in Iraq, a military action President Obama is still considering.
‘Our focus needs to be on urgent action - air support, logistic support, counter-intelligence support to defeat these terrorists who are posing a real danger to the stability of Iraq, to the whole region,’ al-Maliki spokesman Zuhair al-Nahar said.
Al-Maliki, who leads a Shia government, ‘never used sectarian tactics’ to shut out Sunnis, Nahar added.
On Thursday, President Barack Obama said, ‘We’ve said publicly, that whether he (al-Maliki) is prime minister or any other leader aspires to lead the country, that there has to be an agenda in which Sunni, Shia and Kurd all feel that they have the opportunity to advance their interest through the political process.’
An ‘inclusive agenda’ has not been high on the priorities of al-Maliki, whose credibility as an able leader suffered a serious setback when Sunni militants of the al Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant launched a lightning offensive last week that swallowed up a large chunk of northern Iraq, together with the nation’s second city, Mosul, according to analysts here. Al-Maliki, who rose from relative obscurity to office in 2006, when Iraq’s sectarian bloodletting began to spiral out of control, quickly became known for a tough hand, working in alliance with American forces in the country since the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Over the years that followed, Sunni tribes backed by the Americans rose up to fight al Qaeda-linked militants, while al-Maliki showed a readiness to rein in Shia militiamen - and by 2008, the violence had eased. Since the withdrawal of American forces in late 2011, however, it has swelled again, stoked in part by al-Maliki himself. The Iraqi leader’s moves last year to crush protests by Sunnis complaining of discrimination under his Shia-led government sparked a new wave of violence by militants, who took over the city of Fallujah in the western, Sunni-dominated province of Anbar and parts of the provincial capital Ramadi. Iraqi army and police forces battling them at the same time, many Iraqis complain of government corruption, and the failure to rebuild the economy.
Top Shia politicians are saying that al-Maliki must go, that his policies are too sectarian and too divisive and that he has alienated the Sunni people and pushed their leaders out of the government. There is a general consensus in Iraq that the country should remain unified but that can happen only if it can create a national unity government, something many doubt al-Maliki can do, according to analysts here.