03 December 2021
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BAGHDAD (AP) — With the country in turmoil، rivals of Iraq`s Shiite prime minister are mounting a campaign to force him out of office، with some angling for support from Western backers and regional heavyweights.

On Thursday، their effort received a massive boost from President Barack Obama.

The U.S. leader stopped short of calling of calling for Nouri al-Maliki to resign، saying "it`s not our job to choose Iraq`s leaders." 

But، his carefully worded comments did all but 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،" Obama declared at the White House.

"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، Shiite and Kurd all feel that they have the opportunity to advance their interest through the political process،" the president said.

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-Qaida-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.

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-Qaida-linked militants، while al-Maliki showed a readiness to rein in Shiite 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 Shiite-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 for months have been unable to take most areas back.At the same time، many Iraqis complain of government corruption، the failure to rebuild the economy and too close ties with mostly Shiite Iran، a non-Arab nation that Sunni Arab states، including powerhouse Saudi Arabia، see as a threat to regional stability.

Shiite politicians familiar with the secretive efforts to remove al-Maliki said two names mentioned as possible replacements are former vice president Adel Abdul-Mahdi، a French-educated economist who is also a Shiite، and Ayad Allawi، a secular Shiite who served as Iraq`s first prime minister after Saddam`s ouster.

Al-Mahdi belongs to a moderate Shiite party، the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council، which has close links with Iran.

Also lobbying for the job is Ahmad Chalabi، a Shiite lawmaker who recently joined the Supreme Council and was once a favorite by Washington to lead Iraq a decade ago.

Another Shiite from the Supreme Council who is trying to land the job is Bayan Jabr، a former finance and interior minister under al-Maliki`s tenure، according to the politicians، who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

An Iraqi Shiite lawmaker، Hakim al-Zamili، said he was aware of a meeting in recent days between Iraqi political leaders and U.S. officials over the issue of al-Maliki`s future، though he did not know who attended the meeting.

Al-Zamili belongs to a political bloc loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr، who has publicly demanded that al-Maliki be replaced.

But، he said، efforts to replace al-Maliki should come only after Iraqi security forces beat back the Sunni militants.

"My view is that safeguarding Iraq is now our top priority،" al-Zamili said. "We will settle the accounts later."

Mohammed al-Khaldi، a top aide to outgoing Sunni speaker of parliament، Osama al-Nujaifi، said: "We have asked the Americans، Britain، Turkey، Saudi Arabia and Iran to work toward denying al-Maliki a new term. 

The Shiite bloc must find a replacement for him."

A leading Sunni tribal chief also said al-Maliki has to go."I think that most of Obama`s speech، but not all of it، it was shallow and didn`t address the heart of the matter،" Sheik Ali Hatem al-Suleiman told The Associated Press in the northern Kurdish city of Irbil.

"The real problem in Iraq is al-Maliki himself.""U.S. policy cannot rely on a paralyzed man who has lost control of Iraq، when he is the one who took Iraq to this point."

Besides the Sunnis and Shiites، al-Maliki`s former Kurdish allies have also been clamoring to deny him a third term in office، charging that he has excluded them from a decision-making circle of close confidants and is meddling in the affairs of their self-rule enclave in the north."We wanted him to go، but after what happened last week، we want it even more،" said Mahmoud Othman، a veteran Kurdish politician.Massoud Barzani، the president of the Kurdish region، put the case against al-Maliki much more emphatically.

Without mentioning the prime minister by name، he said al-Maliki had discarded his counsel and he alone now "takes direct responsibility for what happened to Iraq."

Al-Maliki، who has long faced criticism for not making his government more inclusive، has been adopting conciliatory language in recent days toward Sunnis and Kurds. 

He said the militant threat affects all Iraqis، regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliation، and called on Iraqis to drop all "Sunnis and Shiites" talk. 

The ongoing crisis، al-Maliki said، had made Iraqis rediscover "national unity."The pro-al-Maliki media also made a show of a meeting Tuesday night between the Iraqi leader and Shiite، Sunni and Kurdish political leaders.

A joint statement issued after the meeting said they agreed to set aside differences and focus on "national priorities" and warned against rhetoric that could potentially stoke sectarian tensions.

In a reference to street parades by armed Shiite militias، it also condemned any armed displays not authorized by the government.

Despite the conciliatory words، al-Maliki is not known to have made any concrete offers to bridge differences with the Sunnis، the Kurds or even his fellow Shiites.

Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad، Diaa Hadid in Irbil، Iraq، and Lara Jakes and Julie Pace in Washington contributed to this report.

Published in News

For years, U.S. officials have debated in meetings and in classified cables whether Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is a uniter or a divider.

Now, events may have provided the answer.

President Barack Obama declined to endorse Maliki yesterday, saying that “the test is before him and other Iraqi leaders.” The Shiite leader has been told that his country’s Sunni and Kurd minorities must “feel that they have the opportunity to advance their interest through the political process,” Obama said at a White House news conference.

The U.S. has invested heavily in Maliki over the years, looking for him to rise above his background as a leader of the Islamic Daawa Party -- going back to when the Shiite group was outlawed under Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein -- to become a national authority capable of running an inclusive government. Now, the U.S. is signaling it’s open to a leadership change.

Iraq has been driven to its current state of turmoil by “a whole variety of actions by a variety of different Iraqi leaders, but first and foremost among them Prime Minister Maliki,” said Kenneth Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington. Maliki’s consolidation of power, including purging Sunnis from the military and arbitrary actions favoring Shiites, alienated Iraqi minorities, he said.

‘Emerging Strongman?’

Maliki first became prime minister following parliamentary elections in December 2005. The U.S., seeking stability and continuity, backed him for a second term after the 2010 elections in which a coalition led by rival Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite allied with Sunni factions, won more seats in parliament.

“The Obama administration backed a second Maliki term while demanding that Maliki form a government inclusive of Sunni leaders,” according to a May 2014 report on Iraq by the Congressional Research Service.

American uncertainty about Maliki’s intentions was captured in the title of a classified 2009 assessment from Ryan Crocker, who was U.S. ambassador to Iraq at the time: “PM Maliki: Strengthening Center or Emerging Strongman?”

The report opted ultimately for optimism, saying “the answer lies closer” to the first description.

The report made public by WikiLeaks, an anti-secrecy group that publishes leaked documents on its website, said that Sunni and Kurdish politicians -- some calling Maliki a “new Saddam” -- see him as an “aspiring strongman bent on imposing a classic Arab autocracy.”


‘National’ Conduct

While Maliki’s thinking and actions “are undoubtedly informed by the Shi’a experience, he himself sees his conduct as national rather than sectarian-inspired,” Crocker wrote.

Crocker, who’s now dean of the George Bush School of Government & Public Service at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, didn’t respond to phone and e-mail messages yesterday, and the State Department said it declines to comment on documents purporting to contain classified information.

The U.S. continued to have many reasons for pause about Maliki. An embassy report in February 2010, also posted by WikiLeaks, said Maliki was removing Sunnis who were Defense or Interior ministry intelligence officers and replacing them with “Daawa party political officers who lack intelligence and related backgrounds.”

Maliki made similar moves against the judiciary, the central bank and other institutions with power.


U.S. Troops

He effectively blocked any agreement that would have the U.S. maintain a residual training and counterterrorism force in Iraq after December 2011. When the issue was first discussed late in President George W. Bush’s administration, Maliki didn’t want a deal, according to John Negroponte, who was deputy secretary of state at the time.

“Maliki didn’t want one because I think he felt it carried too much political freight for him inside his own country,” Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq in 2004 to 2005, said in an interview June 13 for Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt.”

As a result, Bush left the issue for the Obama administration to deal with, he said, and no accord was reached.

Maliki’s actions, particularly since U.S. ground troops left, have alarmed U.S. officials, even as they continued to offer many supportive remarks publicly.

Amid the departure of U.S. troops in December 2011, Maliki met with Obama at the White House, where the American president praised the Iraqi’s “leadership” at that “historic moment.”


‘Good Basis’

At the end of 2011, the Iraqis “did have a pretty good basis for moving forward,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a defense and foreign policy analyst, who appeared with Pollack at a Brookings panel discussion

“We struggled very hard -- we put in a lot of money, a lot of American lives, a lot of high-level attention -- and I believe that the Iraqi political system writ large squandered the opportunity,” he said. “Now the blame within that is primarily Mr. Maliki.”

With U.S. influence reduced, Maliki stepped up his efforts to consolidate control and strengthen Shiite dominance. A week after Maliki met with Obama, the Iraqi government announced an arrest warrant against Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a major Sunni figure, for allegedly ordering his security staff to commit acts of assassination.

Al-Hashimi fled to the autonomous Kurdish area of Iraq. An Iraqi court in September 2012 sentenced him to death in absentia on terrorism charges.


Death Sentence

Such moves “cast doubt on President Obama’s assertion, marking the U.S. withdrawal, that Iraq is now ‘sovereign, stable, and self-reliant,’” according to the CRS report. In addition to cracking down on Sunni leaders, arresting some and curtailing patronage, Maliki purged Sunni military personnel and others in the U.S.-trained and equipped security services, prompting critics to refer to the forces as “Maliki’s militia,” according to Pollack.

By the time U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Baghdad in March 2013, officials were growing more concerned by Maliki’s actions, senior State Department officials said at the time. Kerry sought to press Maliki to hold talks with Sunni and Kurdish officials to end discord between the country’s sectarian groups.

Last November, when Maliki visited the White House, Obama publicly praised him for showing a “commitment” to ensuring an “inclusive and democratic” Iraq.

By contrast, Obama said yesterday that, especially over the last two years, there’s been a “sense among Sunnis that their interests were not being served.”


Too Late

With Iraq sliding into a sectarian civil war, the issue for Obama and his foreign policy team is whether to try to prevent Maliki from keeping his post in a new government following April’s parliamentary elections in which his Shiite coalition won the most seats.

The New York Times reported that the U.S. was actively encouraging the Shiites, the majority group in Iraq, to replace Maliki. At least three other Shiite officials have emerged as possible successors, the Times reported yesterday from Baghdad.

It’s now too late for reconciliation under Maliki, said Samir Sumaida’ie, Iraq’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2006 to 2012.

“My own view, as well as the view of many Sunni and Shia, is that this prime minister has done enough damage,” he said in an interview. “It’s time for him to go.”

That may be easier said than done, said Henri Barkey, a scholar on Iraq at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, said this week.

Pushing Maliki aside wouldn’t be easy, Barkey said, since “everything we know of Maliki is that he is a very stubborn man who wants to stay on.” 


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