BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister
Nuri al-Maliki was battling to keep his job on Monday, deploying forces
across Baghdad as some parliamentary allies sought a replacement and the
United States warned him not to obstruct efforts to form a new
Widely accused of a partisan obstinacy that has fuelled the
communal violence tearing Iraq apart, the Shi'ite Muslim premier
went on television late on Sunday to denounce the ethnic Kurdish
president for delaying the constitutional process of naming a prime
minister following a parliamentary election in late April.
However, President Fouad Masoum won a rapid endorsement from
Washington. With Sunni fighters from the Islamic State making new
gains over Kurdish forces north of Baghdad, the United States
renewed its call for Iraqis to form a consensus government to try
and end bloodshed that has prompted the first U.S. air strikes since
the U.S. occupation ended in 2011.
And in pointed remarks aimed at Maliki, Secretary of State John
Kerry said: "The government formation process is critical in terms
of sustaining stability and calm in Iraq, and our hope is that Mr.
Maliki will not stir those waters.
"There will be little international support of any kind whatsoever
for anything that deviates from the legitimate constitution process
that is in place and being worked on now."
Complicating efforts to propose a replacement from among fellow
Shi'ites, who appear to have some support from both the country's
leading cleric and from the Shi'ite establishment of neighbouring
Iran, the country's highest court ruled that Maliki's State of Law
bloc is the biggest in the new parliament.
That, a senior Iraqi official said, was "very problematic" for
attempts to have President Masoud offer the premiership to an
alternative candidate to Maliki - an alternative that one senior
member of his party said had been close to being chosen.
As Shi'ite militias and security forces personally loyal to Maliki
deployed across the capital, the prime minister made a defiant
late-night address saying he would pursue Masoum in court for
violating the constitution by missing a deadline to ask the leader
of the biggest party to form a new government.
However, the deputy speaker of parliament, Haider al-Abadi from
Maliki's own Dawa party, tweeted that the broader State of Law bloc
was close to nominating a new premier. Abadi has himself been cited
as a possible alternative.
Serving in a caretaker capacity since the inconclusive election on
April 30, Maliki has defied calls by Sunnis, Kurds, some fellow
Shi'ites, regional power broker Iran and Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric
to step aside for a less polarising figure.
Critics accuse Maliki of pursuing a sectarian agenda that has
sidelined minority Sunni Muslims and prompted some of them to
support Islamic State militants, whose latest sweep through northern
Iraq has alarmed the Baghdad government and its Western allies,
prompting U.S. air strikes in recent days.
"Maliki knows it is very difficult to gain a third term and is
playing a high-stakes game to try and ensure his authority and
influence continue into the new government, despite who may
officially become prime minister," said Kamran Bokhari, a Middle
East specialist at analysis firm Stratfor.
MALIKI UNDER FIRE
Washington seems to be losing patience with Maliki, who has placed
Shi'ite political loyalists in key positions in the army and
military and drawn comparisons with ousted Sunni dictator Saddam
Hussein, the man he plotted against from exile for years.
A State Department spokeswoman reaffirmed Washington's support for a
"process to select a prime minister who can represent the
aspirations of the Iraqi people by building a national consensus and
governing in an inclusive manner".
"We reject any effort to achieve outcomes through coercion or
manipulation of the constitutional or judicial process," she said in
a statement, adding that the United States "fully supports" Masoum
as guarantor of Iraq's constitution.
U.S. President Barack Obama has urged Iraqi politicians to form a
more inclusive government that can counter the growing threat from
the Islamic State.
But Maliki, an unknown when he first took office in 2006 with help
from the U.S. occupation administration, is digging in. The Interior
Ministry told police to be on high alert in connection with Maliki's
speech, a police official told Reuters.
As residents saw police with armoured vehicles block roads and set
up checkpoints around Baghdad early on Monday, another police source
said there was an "unprecedented deployment" of army commandos and
special forces to secure the capital.
The Islamic State has capitalised on the political deadlock and
sectarian tensions, making fresh gains after arriving in the north
of the country in June from Syria.
The group, which sees Iraq's majority Shi'ites as infidels who
deserve to be killed, has ruthlessly moved through one town after
another, using tanks and heavy weapons it seized from soldiers who
have fled in their thousands.
On Monday, police said the fighters
had seized the town of Jalawla, 115 km (70 miles) northeast of
Baghdad, after driving out the forces of the autonomous Kurdish
On Sunday, a government minister said Islamic State militants had
killed hundreds of minority Yazidis, burying some alive and taking
women as slaves.
Human rights minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani accused the Sunni
Muslim militants - who have ordered the community they regard as
"devil worshippers" to convert to Islam or die - of celebrating what
he called a "a vicious atrocity".
No independent confirmation was available of the killings. Thousands
of Yazidis have taken refuge in the past week on the arid heights of
Mount Sinjar, close to the Syrian border.
The bloodshed could increase pressure on Western powers to do more
to help tens of thousands of people, including many from religious
and ethnic minorities, who have fled the Islamic State's offensive.
Military action and aid are on the agenda.
The U.S. Central Command said drones and jet aircraft had hit
Islamic State armed trucks and mortar positions on Sunday near
Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region.
That marked a third successive day of U.S. air strikes, and Central
Command said they were aimed at protecting Kurdish peshmerga forces
as they face off against the militants near Arbil, the site of a
U.S. consulate and a U.S.-Iraqi joint military operations centre.
WOMEN HELD AS SLAVES
Consolidating a territorial grip that includes tracts of Syrian
desert and stretches toward Baghdad, the Islamic State's local and
foreign fighters have swept into areas where non-Sunni groups live.
While they persecute non-believers in their path, that does not seem
to be the main motive for their latest push.
The group wants to establish religious rule in a caliphate
straddling Syria and Iraq and has tapped into widespread anger among
Iraq's Sunnis at a democratic system dominated by the Shi'ite Muslim
majority following the U.S. invasion of 2003.
Iraqis have slipped back into sectarian bloodshed not seen since
2006-2007. Nearly every day police report kidnappings, bombings and
execution-style killings. The Sunni militants routed Kurds in their
latest advance with tanks, artillery, mortars and vehicles seized
from fleeing Iraqi troops.
The militants are now just 30 minutes' drive from Arbil. In their
latest sweep through the north, the Sunni insurgents seized a fifth
oil field, several more villages and the biggest dam in Iraq - which
could let them flood cities or cut off water and power supplies -
hoisting their black flags along the way.
After spending more than $2 trillion on its war in Iraq and losing
thousands of soldiers, the United States must now find ways to
tackle a group that is even more hardline than al-Qaeda and has
threatened to march on Baghdad.
(Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Will Waterman)