Jockeying begins to replace Iraqi PM

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BAGHDAD — Iraqi officials said Thursday that political leaders had started intensive jockeying to replace Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and create a government that would span the country’s deepening sectarian and ethnic divisions, spurred by what they called encouraging meetings with U.S. officials signaling support for a leadership change.

President Barack Obama implicitly added his voice Thursday to the call for change, saying any Iraqi leader must be a unifier. He pointedly declined to endorse Mr. Maliki.

The jockeying began after a recent series of meetings with U.S. officials in Baghdad in which, according to at least two participants, they saw the first indications that the Americans would like to see a replacement for Mr. Maliki, whose marginalization of non-Shiites since U.S. forces left Iraq in 2011 has made him a polarizing figure.

At least three people, who, like Mr. Maliki, are all members of the Shiite majority, have emerged as possible candidates to take over as prime minister, with more potential nominees in the wings as parties negotiate alliances from the recent elections. Any prospective successor must convince the minority Sunni and Kurd sects that he can hold Iraq together, as well as vanquish a Sunni-led insurgency that has escalated into a crisis threatening to partition the country.

Moreover, a new leader must assuage the anger of the Sunnis and Kurds, who have used the crisis to present the dominant Shiites with a list of demands to win their support in negotiations to form a parliamentary majority.

The Kurds want the Iraqi central government to recognize the contested city of Kirkuk, endowed with oil, as part of the autonomous Kurdish territory they have carved out in the north. The Kurds also want assurances that they can sell the oil without oversight from the central government.

The Sunnis want to lead at least one security ministry, such as defense or interior, and control some of the other powerful ministries, such as education or higher education -- both rich in patronage jobs.

So far, the only point of near-agreement among Iraq’s political factions is that Mr. Maliki, who has been prime minister since 2007 and is in his second term, must go. “We will not allow a third term for the prime minister; they must change him if they want things to calm down,” said Nabil al-Khashab, a senior political adviser to Osama al-Nujaifi, the former speaker and most prominent of the Sunni leaders, said Thursday.

Even some of Mr. Maliki’s former supporters among the Shiites have turned openly hostile. “He doesn’t have the right to a third term,” said Dhiaa al-Asadi, a senior leader of the Ahrar bloc, a party associated with Muqtada al-Sadr, the influential Shiite cleric. “We are sure we can remove al-Maliki through constitutional means.”

The Kurds, too, strongly support a change, said Falah Mustafa, who serves as the foreign minister for the Kurdish autonomous region.

It is far from clear, however, whether any of the suggested successors could gather enough votes. The names floated so far — Adel Abdul-Mahdi, Ahmad Chalabi and Bayan Jabr — are from the Shiite blocs, which have the largest share of the total seats in the parliament.

Mr. Mahdi came within a vote of winning the prime minister’s job in 2006 and previously served as one of Iraq’s vice presidents. He is viewed as a moderate who has long worked well with the Kurds.

Mr. Chalabi is a complex figure who has alternately charmed and infuriated the Americans but has ties both to them and to Iran. His biggest liability could be his uncompromising support for the systematic purge of many Sunnis from government jobs after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party a decade ago. Mr. Chalabi now says he supports terminating the basis for that purge, the so-called de-Baathification law.

Mr. Jabr, interior minister in the transitional Iraqi government and later finance minister, could also face problems; he is alleged to have allowed abuse and torture of prisoners when he was in the Interior Ministry. Iit is unclear whether he has much widespread support.

Other names are beginning to surface, and while the Americans are urging quick action, it could take weeks -- if not months -- for the factions to reach consensus.

The maneuvering began several days before Mr. Obama’s news conference Thursday in Washington, during which he said that the United States was sending as many as 300 military advisers to Iraq and may order targeted, precise airstrikes aimed at helping the Iraqi government thwart the advance of extremist Sunni militants. Mr. Obama’s pledges of military support have edged the United States back into a conflict that he thought he had put behind him. But he was careful not to pledge U.S. combat troops and also set no timetable for military aid.

Many in Baghdad believe that the promise of using airstrikes to help save the Iraqi state may be the best leverage the United States can exert for pressuring the fiercely competitive political players here to come together.

Mr. Obama declined to answer whether he had lost confidence in Mr. Maliki, but said any Iraqi politician who aspires to be prime minister must reject sectarian policies — areas where he has previously indicated that Mr. Maliki has been a disappointment. “Now it is not the place for the United States to choose Iraq’s leaders,” Mr. Obama said. But he also suggested that Iraqi politicians could not 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,” Mr. Obama said. “Right now is the moment where the state of Iraq hangs in the balance.”

Senior U.S. officials in Baghdad, including the ambassador, Robert S. Beecroft, and the deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran and Iraq, Brett McGurk, have been encouraging the Iraqi political factions to work together. At least two Iraqi political officials said the Americans were urging the factions to agree on a replacement for Mr. Maliki.

United States - North America - United States military - United States government - Middle East - Barack Obama - Iraq - Saddam Hussein - Nouri al-Maliki - Iraq government - Baghdad - Iraqi armed forces - Muqtada al-Sadr - Adil Abdul-Mahdi - Bayan Jabr


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