BAGHDAD — Alarmed over the Sunni insurgent mayhem convulsing Iraq, the country’s political leaders are actively jockeying to replace Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, U.S. and Iraqi officials said Thursday.
The political leaders have been encouraged by what they see as newfound U.S. support for replacing al-Maliki with someone more acceptable to Iraq’s Sunnis and Kurds, as well as to the Shiite majority, the officials said.
They stressed that the discussions were all within the framework of Iraq’s constitution and the recent elections in the country, which calls for the formation of a new government over the next few weeks.
The jockeying came as President Barack Obama told a news conference in Washington that the United States was sending up to 300 military advisers to Iraq and may order targeted, precise airstrikes aimed at helping the Iraqi government thwart the advance of extremist Sunni militants, edging the United States back into a conflict Obama thought he had put behind him.
Obama also repeated his pledge that U.S. combat troops would not join the fighting in Iraq and urged all political leaders in Iraq to form a government that was inclusive of all sects. He declined to answer whether he had lost confidence in al-Maliki but was implicitly critical, saying any Iraqi politician who aspires to be prime minister must be a unifier and reject sectarian policies — areas where al-Maliki has failed.
“Now it is not the place for the United States to choose Iraq’s leaders,” Obama said. “It is clear though that only leaders who can govern with an inclusive agenda can truly bring the Iraqi people together and help them through this crisis.”
Obama also suggested Iraqi politicians cannot delay such a decision.
“As the prospects of civil war heighten, we see a lot of Iraqi leaders stepping back and saying, let’s solve it politically, but they don’t have a lot of time,” he said. “Right now is the moment where the state of Iraq hangs in the balance.”
During the past two days the U.S. ambassador, Robert S. Beecroft, along with Brett McGurk, the senior State Department official on Iraq and Iran, have met with Usama Nujaifi, the leader of the largest Sunni contingent, United For Reform, and with Ahmad Chalabi, one of the several potential Shiite candidates for prime minister, according to people close to each of those factions, as well as other political figures.
“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-Maliki, a Shiite, has marginalized other Iraqi groups, pursuing sectarian policies that are widely blamed for the ballooning Sunni insurgency that seized western Anbar province six months ago and during the past few weeks has taken territory in the north, most notably Mosul, Iraq’s No. 2 city, and Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein.
The extremist Sunni fighters are led by members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, allied with the vestiges of loyalists to Saddam toppled by the U.S. invasion a decade ago. They are now threatening to march on Baghdad and invade the heavily Shiite south.
McGurk, in an email Thursday, denied that U.S. diplomats were trying to urge political leaders to form a coalition to choose a new prime minister.
“That is 100 percent not true,” he said.
But the Obama administration has made no secret of its exasperation with al-Maliki.
The president of the Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani, in a phone call Wednesday night with Vice President Joe Biden laid out some of the Kurds’ demands for participation. He expects to meet over the weekend with Beecroft and McGurk, said Falah Mustafa, who serves as the foreign minister of the Kurdish autonomous region. McGurk has been in Baghdad during the current crisis.
The Americans are urging a unity government, Mustafa said.
“We the Kurds were the only ones who foresaw what was happening, and we shared this with the Americans,” Mustafa said. “But there were people who did not want to see this reality.”
“The events of the last week and the failure to deal with Anbar and the marginalization of different groups” has changed the minds of the Americans and others, Mustafa said.
Even followers of the influential Shiite leader Moktada al-Sadr, who has sometimes supported al-Maliki, have made a public break.
“He doesn’t have the right to a third term,” said Dhiaa al-Asadi, a senior leader of the al-Ahrar Party, a Sadrist grouping. “We are sure we can remove Mr. Maliki through constitutional means.”
“We know several factions already announced they are against a third term for Maliki,” said Abdulhadi al-Hassani, a Dawa Party leader who supports al-Maliki. “We also know that several politicians seek to ally with external powers to put us under pressure, but we know also on the other hand that the Americans will not breach the measures of democracy that they believe in.”
While al-Maliki’s continued refusal to make concessions to Sunni and Kurdish politicians has increasingly isolated him, he was the largest vote-getter in the April 30 elections. Al-Maliki’s own party has only 92 seats of the 328 seats in parliament; 165 would be required to make a majority that could choose the next prime minister, as well as other top officials. But forming a block that could unseat al-Maliki from a third term would require cooperation among many diverse elements.
“Our message,” McGurk said, “is to move the constitutional process forward; certify the election; convene parliament; name a speaker, a president, then a PM. That’s the process and the sequence.”
The Iraqi Supreme Federal Court certified the results of the election Tuesday, after which the Iraqi constitution requires that a parliament be formed 15 days, which then, in effect, chooses a prime minister and other officials.
Rumors have been rife lately that the U.S. government was trying to push al-Maliki into standing aside in favor of a candidate more favorable to all factions. Publicly, U.S. officials have said no military aid would be forthcoming to Iraq until al-Maliki reconciles with other political factions, especially Sunnis.
The meetings Wednesday suggested the Americans have concluded that al-Maliki is unable to reconcile with other factions. His actions and remarks have been increasingly uncompromising, and his decision to mobilize hundreds of thousands of Shiite volunteers has alarmed people in and out of Iraq.
On Thursday, the Iraqi government announced that it would start paying those volunteers what amounts to a living wage, 625,000 Iraqi dinars a month, with another 250,000 dinars in dangerous areas— a total of about $730, roughly half what an Iraqi soldier is paid.
The government also said it was reactivating senior military officers, who were semiretired, and screening them to see if they should be returned to full-time duty, or retired. The order said all of those with the rank of general or above would be retired, a move that would remove many senior Sunni officers from duty, while colonels and below would be screened.