Maliki’s party in search of alternative candidate to lead Iraq

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BAGHDAD — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s days at the helm of his country appear to be numbered after his own party seemed resigned to finding another candidate for the post, releasing a statement urging politicians not to “cling” to their positions.

Shiite politicians were meeting Sunday night to discuss other names for the premiership, lawmakers said. A day earlier, Mr. Maliki’s Dawa party said it in its statement that politicians should “adhere to the principle of sacrifice” for the sake of the country.

Mr. Maliki’s coalition won the largest share of the vote in elections in April, but not a majority, making him reliant on political alliances to form a government. But with many blaming him for the turmoil that has convulsed the country since the polls, some parties are digging in their heels to prevent him from ruling for a third four-year term.

But even more problematic for Mr. Maliki have been hints from Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani that it is time for him to step aside. The reclusive Shiite cleric might be the most influential figure in Iraq, with his words closely followed by millions across the country. Although he normally avoids directly embroiling himself in politics, his sermons have become increasingly pointed.

The Dawa party’s statement Saturday echoed a sermon delivered on behalf of Ayatollah Sistani on Friday, which also urged politicians not to hold on to their positions and to expedite the formation of a new government.

On Saturday, Sheik Abdul Halim al-Zuhairi, a senior figure in Dawa, was dispatched to Najaf to deliver a message to Ayatollah Sistani that the coalition was willing to replace Mr. Maliki if necessary, said Jumaa al-Atwani, a politician with Mr. Maliki’s coalition. Mr. Zuhairi passed the letter to Sistani’s son, he said.

But Hayder al-Khoei, an associate fellow at London-based Chatham House, said associates of Sistani had denied that the visit took place. Regardless, he said, the odds appeared stacked against the embattled Iraqi leader.

“It’s clear now that both Dawa and Sistani know that Maliki can’t stay for a third term,” Mr. Khoei said. “The key question is: Will he go quietly?”

Mr. Atwani said that Dawa was willing “to make sacrifices for the Iraqi people” and that “if promoting Mr. Maliki as the prime minister is not in the interests of the Iraqi people, we are willing to put forward other names.”

Haitham al-Jabouri, another lawmaker with Maliki’s State of Law coalition, said the party was “awaiting a reply” from Ayatollah Sistani. “We care about the Iraqi people’s benefits, not our own,” Mr. Jabouri added.

Shiite politicians met Sunday evening to discuss potential candidates, Mr. Atwani said, adding that Maliki’s chief of staff, Tariq Najim, is a front-runner. Other names being floated are Foreign Minister Hussain al-Shahristani and Basra Governor Khalaf Abdul-Samad.

However, Mr. Atwani said that if Ayatollah Sistani’s only request is for the premier to build a broad-based coalition that includes Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites, Mr. Maliki’s bloc would stick by him as he attempts to do so.

If he fails, there appears to be some level of consensus among Shiite politicians that Mr. Maliki’s bloc should still be the one to propose a candidate for the premiership.

“We will accept anyone except Nouri al-Maliki,” said Sabbar Mohammed, a politician with Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s party, which opposes Mr. Maliki.

Mr. Maliki could still put up a fight, however. During his eight years as prime minister, he has consolidated power. He remains head of the armed forces, the secret service, and the ministries of interior and defense. The Associated Press has reported that he has resisted Iranian requests to step aside.

Mr. Mohammed said some Shiite parties are suggesting that Maliki be offered the post of vice president to ease him from power. “He wants to keep a position so he can have some immunity from prosecution,” Mr. Mohammed said. “If he’s outside, and there’s a strong government, it’s 100 percent certain he’ll be prosecuted for his crimes.”

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