The desperate attempt of Prime Minister Nurial Maliki to cling to power further complicates the already tenuous situation in Iraq, which has its hands full beating back the Sunni jihadists advancing from the country’s north and west.
Maliki has increasingly become more of a divisive character than a unifying player on Iraq’s political stage, is trying to legitimize his authority by contesting in court the recent election of President Fuad Masum. Masum, a Kurdish politician, has emerged as the new darling of the United States and its allies, who have turned their backs on Maliki after he failed dismally to bring some sense of order to his splintered government.
Now more than ever, Iraq needs a leader who could rise above sectarianism and who wields the moral authority to rally the people against a dangerous enemy.
Maliki is not that leader. Yet he stubbornly refuses to step down. Last Monday, Iraq’s federal court threw him a lifeline, ruling that his coalition is the largest bloc in the country’s parliament. The decision could throw a monkey wrench on Masum’s plan to form a new government and eventually ease out the prime minister.
Washington would only be happy to see Maliki go. State Secretary John Kerry has openly endorsed Masum, saying he “has the responsibility for upholding the constitution of Iraq.”
“Iraq needs to finish its government formation process and the United States will do everything possible in order to support the upholding of the constitution,” Kerry said. “We believe that the government formation process is critical in terms of sustaining the stability and calm in Iraq.”
As if to drive home his point, the US secretary even issued a veiled warning: “Our hope is that Mr. Maliki will not stir those waters.”
But Maliki has dug his heels in, and his defiance could bring Iraq closer to the edge of a break-up. The fighters of the Islamic State have captured large swathes of Iraqi territory as they pursue their objective to establish a “caliphate” from land carved out of Iraq and Syria.
US President Barack Obama has ordered air strikes against the Islamic State to halt its assault and stop what he said was a major humanitarian crisis.
The ferocity with which the Sunni militants kill civilians and prisoners has shocked and outraged the world. The jihadists, who have posted gruesome videos and photos of their atrocities online, have driven 200,000 Iraqi residents from their homes. The militants seem to have reserved their most brutal attacks for the Yazidi Christian minority, whom they claim worships Satan.
On Sunday, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said that US jets and drones have been “very effective” against the Islamic State.
The United States has balanced the air strikes with airdrops of food, water and relief supplies to villagers hiding out in the mountains. France and Britain have joined the humanitarian mission with airdrops of their own. “This is a humanitarian issue of great consequence for all over the world and I think great powers understand they have great responsibilities in this,” Secretary Hagel said.
The US is willing to do more, short of sending ground troops back to Iraq. But it has made it clear that Maliki is not the man it wants to deal with. Already, Washington has indicated it is willing to provide more arms to the peshmerga, seasoned fighters from Iraq’s Kurdish region. And it can only effectively arm the peshmerga if Masum takes over the reins of government from Maliki, who has never fully trusted the Kurds.
President Obama says the air strikes will continue for as long as necessary. That could become an open-ended mission, unless the political stalemate in Baghdad is broken soon.