Thursday, June 19, 2014

U.S. Behind Planned Coup Against Maliki
Area around oil refinery where fighting is taking place in Iraq.
New York Times
JUNE 19, 2014

BAGHDAD — Iraqi officials said Thursday that political leaders had started intensive jockeying to replace Prime Minister Nuri Kamal 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 American officials signaling support for a leadership change.

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

The jockeying began as a series of meetings with American officials were held here 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 United States 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 Iraq’s Sunni Muslims and its ethnic Kurds 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 find a way to assuage the many demands of the Sunnis and Kurds, who have long complained of being unequal partners in the country and view the negotiations to pick a new prime minister and other central figures as a rare moment when they have the leverage to enhance their political power and right what they perceive as past injustices.

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 wants assurances that they can sell the oil from Kurdistan 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 and 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,” 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 Moktada al-Sadr, the influential Shiite cleric. “We are sure we can remove Mr. Maliki through constitutional means.”

Witnesses reported that Sunni extremists seized Iraq’s largest oil refinery on Wednesday after fighting the Iraqi Army for a week, but officials have since disputed the reports and the situation remains unclear. Workers were evacuated, and the facility, which provides oil for domestic consumption to 11 Iraqi provinces, including Baghdad, was shut down.

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, Ahmed Chalabi and Bayan Jaber — 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 American-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. Jaber, a minister of interior 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, and it 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 in Washington on Thursday in which he said that the United States was sending up to 300 military advisers to Iraq and might order targeted, precise airstrikes aimed at helping the Iraqi government thwart the advance of extremist Sunni militants, who have seized parts of northern and western Iraq, including the second-largest city, Mosul, and Mr. Hussein’s hometown, Tikrit.

Iraq’s Embattled Leader:

Elected in 2006 as a compromise candidate, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki now heads a shaky Shiite-led government in a fractured country facing a mortal threat from Sunni insurgents.

From an educated middle-class Shiite background. Active in sectarian politics since the early 1970s, when he joined the mainly Shiite Islamic Dawa Party.

In 1978 he fled to Syria, returning in 2002, just before the American-led invasion.

Was deputy chairman of the commission that purged members of Saddam Hussein's party from public life, earning the enmity of many Sunnis.

Worked to win over Sunni tribal leaders and campaigned against sectarianism in 2007-9.

Built and maintained ties with Iran, where he spent time while in exile.

Split with former allies and formed his own political coalition in 2010.

Did not reach agreement with the United States to retain American troops in the country.

Has come under growing criticism for amassing personal power and favoring Shiite interests.
The insurgents have also besieged the country’s largest petroleum refinery in Baiji, 130 miles north of Baghdad, a protracted battle the Iraqi military claimed on Thursday it was winning, although reports from the scene made that unclear.

Mr. Obama’s pledges of military support have edged the United States back into a conflict Mr. Obama thought he had put behind him. However, he was careful not to pledge American combat troops nor set a timetable for military aid.

Many here 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 American 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.

“They want to see the back of him,” said an Iraqi official, who met with the Americans this week and spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the nature of the talks.

Mr. Khashab, who is close to Mr. Nujaifi, said the American position had been made clear to Mr. Nujaifi in a meeting on Wednesday at the American Embassy in Baghdad.

“Brett and the ambassador met with Mr. Nujaifi yesterday, and they were open about this: They do not want Maliki to stay,” Mr. Khashab said.

The maneuvering does not mean that Mr. Maliki, a longtime political operative, is out. But he is now fighting for his political survival.

While on the one hand, Mr. Maliki’s continued refusal to make concessions to Sunni and Kurdish politicians has increasingly isolated him, he still managed to get the largest number of votes in the April 30 elections — although the number is still too small for him to win re-election as prime minister without support from other coalitions.

“We know several factions already announced they are against a third term for Maliki,” said Abdul Hadi al-Hassani, a Dawa Party leader who supports Mr. 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.”

Mr. Maliki’s party has 92 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.

His most recent play for support was to offer salaries to the volunteers who are signing up to fight in government-sanctioned militias that are partly under the auspices of the army. With hundreds of thousands of men offering to join the fight, he is effectively reaching out to the Shiite street and potentially making it harder for Shiite politicians to work against him.

On Thursday, the Iraqi government announced that it would start paying those volunteers what amounts to a living wage, about $730, roughly half what an Iraqi soldier is paid.

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