The U.S. is pressing Iraq’s leaders to form a new government quickly in a bid to halt the nation’s slide into civil war, seeking to achieve in weeks a political agreement that took eight months in 2010.
The U.S. has limited sway in Iraq as it seeks a political solution to the country’s sectarian strife, potentially without Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose actions have alienated minority Sunnis and Kurds.
The pace of U.S. diplomacy will intensify as Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in the region tomorrow for talks with Iraq’s neighbors on its future. Militants captured a border crossing with Syria and two towns in the western Sunni-dominated Anbar province after heavy fighting, Al Mada news agency reported today. The governor of Anbar told Al Arabiya television that towns were taken by tribesmen and not extremists.
The U.S. can’t “undo the damage that Maliki has done to the nation’s unity, quality of governance, economy, and security forces since the 2010 election,” Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, wrote in a commentary yesterday.
The possibility of an Iraqi regime without Maliki gained credibility yesterday, when the country’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called for the formation of an “effective” government “that can avoid previous mistakes.”
The Obama administration is prodding Iraqi politicians to form a new government within weeks, short-circuiting the infighting and deal-making that has followed previous parliamentary elections.
“They don’t have a lot of time,” President Barack Obama said in an interview yesterday on CNN.
Without bridging the sectarian divide, “there’s no amount of American firepower that’s going to be able to hold the country together,” said Obama, who this week declined to express confidence in Maliki.
Kerry will consult with countries in the region that “have a vital interest in ensuring that Iraq does not descend into civil war or become a safe haven for terrorists,” Obama said at the White House on June 19.
The nation is torn by an insurgency led by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, an offshoot of al-Qaeda that has seized cities in northern Iraq, exacerbating fault lines among the nation’s Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.
Iraq’s Supreme Court certified the results of the nation’s April 30 parliamentary elections on June 16. Under the constitution, the process of forming a new government is supposed to be completed within 60 days after that. Four years ago, the process dragged on for eight months.
While Maliki’s party came out on top once again this time, it’s not yet clear whether he’ll be able to assemble the support necessary to remain as prime minister, according to an Obama administration official who briefed reporters after the president’s remarks on condition of anonymity.
Maliki’s party won 92 seats in the parliament, the most of any parliamentary bloc. Though that’s short of the 165 needed for a majority, the National Alliance, dominated by Maliki’s State of Law bloc, is part of a coalition that claimed more than 170 seats.
“Those who call for him to step down, step aside, or otherwise quit are ignoring the clear message of the last election: most Shi’a want him to stay in place and crack down on a Sunni insurgency,” according to Daniel Serwer, a professor of conflict management at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
The Sunni insurgents led by ISIL have seized cities north of Baghdad and engaged in a back-and-forth battle to control the Baiji oil refinery, the nation’s largest. Elite security forces were protecting the refinery after foiling ISIL’s attack, state-sponsored al-Iraqiya television said today.
The militants who attacked the refinery “have been eliminated,” Qassem Ata, an Iraq security spokesman, said in a televised news conference today. “We are in a battle, we may retreat in one area and advance in another. This is natural.”
Militants yesterday seized the al-Qaim crossing at the Syrian border, after government forces abandoned their posts, Iraqi news agency al-Mada reported. The insurgents seized military equipment and freed prisoners, it said. Ata said citizens in al-Qaim, backed by security forces, are determined to “purge the city,” from ISIL gunmen.
Crude oil shipments from southern Iraq, where most production is located, have mostly been unaffected by the fighting. Kurds are defending the Kirkuk oilfield in the north. Iraq pumped 3.3 million barrels a day of oil last month.
With the uncertainty imposed by the sectarian strife, Brent crude, which is used to price more than half of the world’s oil, recorded a second weekly gain.
Al-Sistani’s message, delivered by his representative Ahmed al-Safi in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, follows Obama’s announcement of limited military assistance to help the government in Baghdad turn the tide.
In authorizing the deployment of as many as 300 special operations advisers to Iraq, Obama stressed that the onus is on Iraqi leaders to resolve the crisis and that time is limited. The initial group of advisers will arrive in Baghdad today, CNN reported, citing a senior defense official it didn’t identify.
Rear Admiral John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said yesterday that it’s not a given that so many advisers would be sent to Iraq. The final number depends on the recommendations of the initial special operating forces that will soon be assessing the capabilities of Iraqi Security Forces units and ISIL, he said.
Asked about arrangements to insulate U.S. military advisers from Iraqi legal prosecution, Kirby said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is pursuing a written agreement ensuring “appropriate legal protections.”
“The secretary is absolutely committed to making sure that our troops have the legal protections, and he would not do that on a nod and a wink,” Kirby said.
Obama withdrew all U.S. troops from Iraq by December 2011 after the Maliki government failed to agree to a “status of forces” agreement providing such legal protections.
After a day of travel today, stops on Kerry’s trip from tomorrow to June 27 will include talks in Jordan and meetings with European and Mideast allies in Paris, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said yesterday. The top U.S. diplomat also will attend a NATO foreign ministers meeting that will review developments in Ukraine.
Obama declined on June 19 to say that he continues to have confidence in Maliki, whose government the administration blames for inflaming sectarian tensions in OPEC’s second-largest oil producer.
“It’s not the place for the United States to choose Iraq’s leaders,” Obama said. “It is clear, though, that only leaders that can govern with an inclusive agenda are going to be able to truly bring the Iraqi people together and help them through this crisis.”
Still, U.S. officials are intensely involved in Baghdad. Brett McGurk, the senior State Department official responsible for Iraq policy, and Ambassador Robert Beecroft have been meeting Iraqi political figures, stressing the urgency of forming a government that shows national unity to avoid a de facto partition or even a breakup.
Barak Mendelsohn, associate professor of political science at Haverford College in Haverford, Pennsylvania, said it’s possible Maliki will step aside or be pushed out of power.
“I can definitely see a scenario where he’s being viewed as a lightning rod and therefore removed for someone who might be viewed as more amendable for finding a compromise with Sunnis,” he said in a phone briefing for reporters arranged by Foreign Affairs magazine.
Under the Iraqi constitution, the first step is to convene the newly elected parliament, which is supposed to happen no later than July 1. After that, the parliament has 30 days to name a president, and then the president has 15 days to nominate a new prime minister.
While U.S. officials are pressing Iraqis to move sooner, the government formation “is likely to take some time -- weeks or even months,” Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee, told reporters yesterday.
Levin said the U.S. should take military action only if requested by a range of Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders. Such a unified statement “would be an important signal that Iraq’s leaders understand the need to come together,” he said.