Iraqi caretaker Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s grip on power weakened further as his own political bloc repudiated him, and the U.S., Iran and Iraq’s top Shiite cleric called for a quick transition to a successor.
With Iraqi warplanes striking Islamist militant positions in the western city of Fallujah after a series of raids by American fighter jets on the insurgents in the north, Maliki’s Dawa party urged political leaders to replace the premier with designated successor Haidar al-Abadi. In Washington, President Barack Obama said the U.S. is “modestly hopeful” that Iraq is moving toward a new, inclusive government led by Abadi.
Iraqi leaders and key international allies are seeking to end a political stalemate that has blunted the country’s response to insurgent attacks. Maliki’s Shiite-dominated administration is accused by minority Sunnis of alienating their community, some of whom swung behind guerrillas of the Islamic State as they began a major offensive in early June.
While Maliki has denounced the process to replace him as unconstitutional, he held talks with Abadi today to find a compromise, a Dawa lawmaker said. There was no word on the outcome of the negotiations.
“Fundamentally, I think that Iran has clearly and publicly shown Maliki the door,” Austin Long, a professor at Columbia University in New York, said by phone. “That more than anything has made him reconsider trying to hold on to power.” Iran, the region’s Shiite power, has underwritten recent Iraqi governments and sent forces to help beat back the insurgent offensive.
As Islamic State forces pushed into new areas of northern Iraq, they seized towns and a major dam near the city of Mosul, and sent thousands of members of ethnic Yazidis and Christians fleeing onto the exposed slopes of Mount Sinjar. The U.S., France, and other countries are assisting Kurdish forces to staunch the militant advance.
Obama said today that the U.S. warplanes and ground advisers had helped break the siege of the Yazidis.
“Because of these efforts, we do not expect there to be an additional operation to evacuate people off the mountain,” he said. “And it’s unlikely that we’re going to need to continue humanitarian air drops.”
Still, the “situation remains dire for Iraqis subject to ISIL’s terror throughout the country,” Obama said, referring to the jihadist group that now calls itself the Islamic State. “It also includes many Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds.”
U.S. troops flew to Sinjar mountain yesterday to assess a potential military rescue mission for the Yazidis, a religious minority threatened with death as apostates by the Islamic State group.
In Baghdad, Khalid al-Asady, a lawmaker and spokesman for the Dawa party, said Maliki had engaged in “serious” talks with Abadi. Asady said an announcement on their discussion was expected.
Maliki is probably negotiating a “safe exit,” Columbia’s Long said. Paul Sullivan, a professor of economics at the National Defense University in Washington DC, agreed.
Maliki “is done,” Sullivan said by phone. “Iran got involved. Likely he was paid off in some way.”
Maliki had argued that the State of Law bloc, which he ran for during the election and which includes Dawa, is the parliament’s largest. His opponents say the National Alliance, a broader Shiite coalition, has more seats and therefore the right to present an alternative candidate to lead the government. Maliki has said he’ll contest Abadi’s nomination in court and won’t step down before a ruling.
Abadi, who was born in 1952, has until mid-September to form a cabinet for what the U.S. says should be an “inclusive” government that can reverse sectarian measures imposed by Maliki that fueled Sunni support for Islamic State, as well as Kurdish threats of independence for their region.
Abadi’s nomination has had the unusual effect of drawing support both from the U.S. and from neighboring Iran, which has major influence with Iraq’s Shiites and funds several Shiite militia groups. The European Union and the Arab League have also backed Abadi’s appointment.
EU foreign ministers will be seeking signs of greater unity when they meet tomorrow in Brussels to discuss Iraq and Ukraine. France and Britain preempted a green light from all 28 EU members and yesterday started supplying Kurdish forces with weapons. Germany and Italy have indicated they may follow.
Islamic State, a Sunni group that began as an al-Qaeda affiliate in 2003, has rampaged through northern Iraq, inspiring reports of beheadings and crucifixions. Its fighters have captured strategic assets to fund a self-declared Islamic caliphate announced in June and that stretches across the frontier into Syria.