President Barack Obama endorsed Iraq’s potential new prime minister Monday, and urged the serving prime minister to give up power peacefully.
That’s a stark public intervention in Iraq’s politics, which are now paralyzed by the current prime minister’s insistence that he be allowed to build a new parliamentary majority following recent elections, and the rapid advance of a ruthless jihadi army from the north.
Obama offered a veiled threat, and a promise of greater support, if Iraq replaces current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
“The United States stands ready to support a government that addresses the needs and grievances of all Iraqi people,” he said, implying the U.S. government might depart if the current prime minister is not replaced.
“We are also ready to work with other countries in the region to deal with the humanitarian crisis and counterterrorism challenge in Iraq [and] mobilizing that support will be easier once this new government is in place,” suggesting that new military and financial aid will be delivered only if there’s a new prime minister.
But Maliki, doesn’t want to be replaced, and he’s using his allies to pressure the new president, Fuad Masum.
Masum’s limited powers include the oversight of new parliamentary governments after each national election. Masum has asked one of Maliki’s former supporters, Hairar al-Abadi, to form a new parliamentary majority. If al-Abadi succeeds, he will become the prime minister and will replace Maliki.
For at least a month, Obama and his allies have worked to replace Maliki, whom they blame for wrecking the delicate and informal power-sharing deal that was created by President George W. Bush in 2008. The U.S. lost its ability to support the deal when Obama decided in 2010 to withdraw U.S. ground forces from the country.
Under that deal, the Shia majority — led by Maliki — was supposed to delegate power, jobs and revenues to the Sunni minority, who had controlled the country for decade prior to Saddam Hussein’s removal in 2003.
Sunni allies of Hussein and various Sunni tribal leaders led the guerilla war against the new government until they were beaten by the Shia and the U.S. military in 2007.
Those Sunni fighters, however, have now allied with the Syria-based jihadi army that calls itself the Islamic State (IS). The IS force has captured much of northern Iraq, and now threatens to attack the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.
The Sunni tribes may split from IS if they’re offered autonomy and oil revenues. Obama and his deputies want a replacement for Maliki to negotiate that deal with the Sunnis.
However, that deal will be difficult to make because many Sunni leaders despise the Shia population, greatly exaggerate their share of Iraq’s population, and will likely insist on a disproportionate share of power and revenues.
Also, Shia politicians won’t want to grant easy terms to the Sunnis, partly because they fear the Sunnis will try to reclaim dictatorial power in Baghdad. Since 2003, Sunni fighters have killed tens of thousands of Shia soldiers and civilians while trying to reclaim power over the Shia.
“This is a process that will unfold over a couple of weeks… we’re working with all parties to try to build an inclusive government,” and devolve power to local governments, said Brett McGurk, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, including Iraq and Iran.
“This is, at root, an Iraqi process,” he said during an MSNBC interview.