Embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki rejected a transition to Haidar al-Abadi as his successor, escalating political tensions in Baghdad amid a growing threat from Sunni insurgents.
Iraq’s President Fouad Masoum earlier today asked Abadi, a Shiite who is deputy speaker of parliament, to try to form a new cabinet, a move that drew quick public support from the U.S.
Maliki called the action “legally worthless,” and his opposition threatens to extend a three-month political stalemate that’s helped the militant Sunni fighters of the Islamic State seize swaths of the country. U.S. airstrikes are having only a “temporary effect” on thwarting the insurgents in northern Iraq, U.S. Lieutenant General William Mayville told reporters at the Pentagon today.
In a late-night address on state TV, Maliki defied pressure from fellow Shiite political leaders and the U.S. to step aside, setting the stage for a potential confrontation after he sent troops into the streets of Baghdad early today.
“You, the Iraqi people, and the security forces are in a holy battle,” Maliki said. “Don’t panic. We will fix the mistakes.”
Masoum tapped Abadi hours after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pulled support from Maliki, warning him not to hinder the political process while the country is under threat from the Islamic State. Maliki said that Masoum violated the Iraqi constitution in not selecting him to form the cabinet because his State of Law bloc was the top vote-getter in the April parliamentary elections.
“We are the largest bloc in the parliament and have the right to form the government,” said Maliki, who has served two terms as prime minister.
The U.S. and some Iraqi leaders have blamed Maliki’s divisive policies for the success of the Sunni insurgents, and President Barack Obama has tied expanded U.S. military strikes to formation of a more inclusive government to ease sectarian and ethnic divisions.
Maliki’s rejection of Abadi could lead to strife and even violence within the country’s majority religious group even as the Sunni militants in the north push into Shiite and Kurdish areas of the country.
“Maliki has consolidated control over the security apparatus by establishing extra-constitutional security bodies and creating a direct chain of command from commanders to his office,” Meda Al Rowas, senior Middle East analyst at IHS Country Risk, said in a note to clients. “This increases the risk of Maliki’s rivals, who have access to their own militias, using force to attempt to remove Maliki, raising the risk of Shia-Shia infighting within the capital, and subsequently civil war risks affecting southern provinces.”
The Shiite National Alliance approached Abadi to replace Maliki, Iraqiya television said, citing a statement from the bloc’s chief, Ibrahim al-Jaafari. As dusk fell in Iraq, a group of lawmakers read a statement on state-sponsored Iraqiya television that Abadi “only represents himself and that he does not represent the Dawa bloc,” which is headed by Maliki and is part of the State of Law coalition.
The group said they “reserve the legal right to file a lawsuit against those who obstructed the constitution.”
Amid the tensions in Baghdad, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called Masoum to offer him “full support” and to discuss formation of the new government, according to a White House statement. Biden also discussed Obama’s “desire to boost coordination with a new Iraqi government and Iraqi security forces to roll back gains by the Islamic State,” according to the statement.
“The most prominent foreign players in Iraq are the Iranians and the Americans,” Watheq al-Hashimi, director of the Iraqi Group for Strategic Studies, said by phone. “Today, al-Maliki has lost both.”
Abadi, who was deputy speaker of parliament, called after his appointment for cooperation to fight the Islamic State, Al Arabiya television said. The militants have captured key installations such as dams, military outposts and the region’s largest city, Mosul, in its declared campaign to establish an Islamic caliphate.
Maliki has defied efforts by lawmakers to pressure him to drop his bid for a third term after inconclusive parliamentary elections in April. Kerry said earlier today that Maliki wasn’t even among the three candidates that his fellow Shiites wanted as the next prime minister.
The U.S. military conducted additional airstrikes against Islamic State targets near Erbil, the U.S. Central Command said in a statement today. Strikes yesterday destroyed part of an Islamic State vehicle convoy moving to attack forces defending Erbil, it said.
The U.S. has conducted 15 targeted airstrikes since Aug. 8, using a combination of fighter jets and armed drones, according to Mayville, who is director of operations for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“We’ve had a very temporary effect and we may have blunted some tactical decisions” by Islamic State militants to move farther east toward Erbil, the Kurdish regional capital, Mayville said at the Pentagon briefing.
The strikes haven’t been extensive enough to contain the militants or reduce their capabilities, he said.
There are no plans to expand air operations beyond the limited mission of protecting U.S. personnel on the ground and aiding civilians facing a humanitarian crisis, Mayville said.
The U.S. also has provided food and water to civilians trapped on a mountain near the town on Sinjar who have been threatened with slaughter if they return to their homes. The Defense Department has flown 14 successful missions over four nights, providing 16,000 gallons of water and 75,000 meals, Mayville said. Estimates of the number of civilians stranded on the mountain have ranged from thousands to tens of thousands, he said.
Kurdish forces were able to retake the towns of Makhmour and Gwer, south of Erbil, where militants retreated after U.S. airstrikes, according to the Kurdish news agency Rudaw, citing officials.
A U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the U.S., Turkey, Jordan, France, Britain and Gulf states have been discussing how to arm the Kurds and that some weapons already have been delivered. He wouldn’t give further details and declined to discuss the U.S. role.
Kurdish military forces, known as peshmerga, have begun receiving small-arms ammunition directly from the U.S., instead of going through Baghdad, because their needs have become “pretty substantial,” Mayville said. “We want to help them with that effort,” he said of the Kurds.
Kurdish forces were “surprised” by the sophistication of arms used by Islamic State, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in interview with France2 television broadcast yesterday from Erbil.
“One way or another, we have to see about how to deliver weapons in a secure way so that they can defend themselves and counter-attack,” Fabius said. “We will see in the days ahead, in liaison with other Europeans.”
European ambassadors to the European Union will meet tomorrow to discuss Iraq. France and Britain delivered humanitarian aid over the weekend, while for the moment saying they won’t join military action.