Major powers are pushing for a new inclusive government, rather
than one pursuing Shi'ite sectarian domination, to be formed fast to
counter the insurrection that has spilled across the border with
Syria and could menace the wider Middle East.
In a striking political intervention on Friday that could signal the
demise of Maliki's eight-year tenure, influential Grand Ayatollah
Ali Sistani urged political blocs to agree on the next premier,
parliament speaker and president before a newly elected legislature
meets in Baghdad on Tuesday.
"The next 72 hours are very important to come up with an
agreement..., to push the political process forward," said a
lawmaker and ex-government official from the National Alliance,
which groups all Shi'ite Muslim parties.
The lawmaker, who asked for anonymity due to political
sensitivities, said he expected internal meetings of the various
parties and a broader session of the National Alliance including
Maliki's State of Law list to be held through the weekend. Some
Sunni Muslim parties were to convene later on Saturday.
Sistani's entry into the fray will make it hard for Maliki to stay
on as caretaker leader as he has since a parliamentary election in
April. That means he must either build a coalition to confirm
himself in power for a third term or step aside.
Sistani's message was delivered after a meeting of Shi'ite factions
including the State of Law coalition failed to agree on a consensus
candidate for prime minister.
The embattled Maliki accused his political foes of trying to prevent
parliament from meeting on time and whipping up violence to
interfere with the political process.
"They worked to postpone the elections... and now they are working
to postpone the first session of the council of representatives...
but if they are not able to pressure us to postpone, they will go
for inciting security incidents in Baghdad," he said during a
televised meeting with commanders.
Since early June, ISIL militants have overrun most majority Sunni
Muslim areas in the north and west of Iraq, capturing the biggest
northern city Mosul and late dictator Saddam Hussein's hometown of
ISIL aims to set up a medieval-style Islamic caliphate erasing
regional borders and they deem all Shi'ites to be heretics deserving
death. They have boasted of executing scores of Shi'ite government
soldiers captured in Tikrit.
On Saturday, Iraqi troops were trying to advance on Tikrit from the
direction of Samarra to the south that has become the military's
line in the sand against an ISIL charge southwards to within an
hour's drive of the capital Baghdad.
U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground forces back
to Iraq, where they were for eight years after invading to oust
Saddam, but has sent up to 300 advisers, mostly special forces, to
help the government take on ISIL.
ARMED U.S. AIRCRAFT NOW OVERFLYING IRAQ
U.S. defense officials said on Friday that the Obama administration
was flying armed aircraft over Iraq although these aimed to collect
intelligence and ensure the safety of U.S. personnel on the ground
rather than attack targets.
Still, General Martin Dempsey, the top U.S. military officer, said
additional U.S. options included going after "high value individuals
who are the leadership of ISIL" and working to protect Iraq's
On Saturday, 11 people were injured when an explosion rocked a
health ministry building in insurgent-held Mosul, a local health
official said. City residents said the blast was caused by a drone
strike but this could not be confirmed and a U.S. official dismissed
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Residents also reported overnight rocket fire into Mosul, whose fall
to ISIL on June 10 launched the militants on a sweep across the
north in which they also took border crossings with areas of civil
war-racked Syria that they already controlled.
governing system put in place after Saddam's overthrow, the prime
minister has always been a Shi'ite, the largely ceremonial president
a Kurd and the speaker of parliament a Sunni. Negotiations over the
positions have often been drawn out: after the last election in 2010
it took nearly 10 months for Maliki to build a coalition to stay in
Divvying up the three posts in the four days before parliament
meets, as sought by Sistani, would require leaders from each of
Iraq's three main ethnic and sectarian groups to commit to the
political process and swiftly resolve their most pressing political
problems, above all the fate of Maliki.
Allies of Maliki said Sistani's call for a quick decision was not
aimed at sidelining the premier but at putting pressure on all
political parties not to drag out the process with typical
infighting with Iraq facing disintegration. Even so, they
acknowledged Sistani was not happy with Maliki's policies.
“It is other groups telling Sistani they cannot accommodate Maliki
for a third term. Sistani doesn't want to get involved in who is the
next prime minister, but there has to be progress," said one
official from Maliki's State of Law list.
The roadmap is far from smooth. Kurds have yet to agree on a
candidate for president and the Sunnis, long riven by intense
rivalries and shaken by the loss of their cities to militants, are
divided among themselves over the speaker's post.
Maliki, whose State of Law coalition won the most seats in the April
election, was positioning himself for a third term before the ISIL
offensive began. His closest allies say he still aims to stay, but
senior State of Law figures have said he could be replaced with a
less polarising figure.
"It’s a card game and State of Law plays a poker game very well,"
said the official from the premier's alliance. "For the prime
minister, it will go down to the wire."
Sunnis accuse Maliki of excluding them from power and repressing
their community, driving armed tribal groups to back the insurgency
led by ISIL. The president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region has
also said Maliki should go.
Iraq's million-strong army, trained and outfitted by the United
States at a cost of some $25 billion, largely disintegrated in the
north in the face of ISIL's offensive.
Thousands of Shi'ite volunteers have responded to an earlier call by
Ayatollah Sistani for all Iraqis to rally behind the military to
defeat the jihadist threat.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)
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