As US bombs militants in Kurdistan, Maliki clings to power in Baghdad

The Iraqi parliament is poised to miss a Friday night constitutional deadline for selecting a new prime minister. Despite tumbling support, Prime Minister Maliki is refusing to give up his bid for another term. 

Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters/File
Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki speaks during an interview with Reuters in Baghdad, January 12, 2014. Maliki is scrambling to pull whatever strings he can to secure a third term, but the government's loss of Mosul to militants in June has left him with much less support.

As the Islamic State seized more towns and villages south of Mosul and the US launched airstrikes, Iraqi politicians appeared poised to miss today's deadline for selecting a prime minister. The deadlock is deepening a political crisis that aided the militant group's march across Iraq this summer.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is scrambling to pull whatever strings he can to secure a third term, but the government's loss of Mosul to militants in June has left him with much less support. Despite pressure to step aside from both the US and Iraq's most senior Shiite religious leader, Mr. Maliki is digging in. And without a political consensus in Baghdad, Iraq's war effort could be further imperiled.  

Maliki warned in a weekly address Wednesday that the "gates of hell" would be opened if Iraq bypassed its constitution and set up an emergency coalition government, as some have suggested. 

Although he has lost the backing of many of his former allies and is believed to be under pressure to step down by both the US and Iran, a former supporter, Maliki has refused to consider stepping aside or endorsing another candidate. 

“Anyone who tells you there is another name besides al-Maliki is wrong,” says Hisham al-Suhail, a member of parliament from Maliki’s State of Law coalition.

According to a wide range of politicians, Maliki and his closest advisors believe they could be arrested or assassinated if he loses his position.

Missed deadline

Under Iraq’s constitution, lawmakers have 15 days from choosing a president to agree on a prime minister. Yesterday's session, a day before the deadline, was punctuated by members of parliament shouting insults at each other and ended with a move to adjourn until Sunday.

The session was meant to ratify agreements made in negotiations outside the conference hall but heated proceedings illustrated how far apart Iraq's political blocs still are on closing a deal.

Mr. Suhail says the State of Law does not consider today as the constitutional deadline since the 15-day period overlapped with a three-day holiday. He suggested the federal courts might have to sort it out.

A boon for the Islamic State

The Islamic State, formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, now controls one-third of Iraqi territory. Baghdad's response has been hobbled by its failure to form a new government since elections were held in April. 

Kurdish forces, which had held a defensive line of more than 600 miles of territory against IS, withdrew this week from towns and cities along the Nineveh plains between Mosul and Kurdish-controlled territory. On Friday, the US launched air strikes against IS targets in northern Iraq after President Obama warned of a genocidal threat to minorities. 

“We don’t know what’s happening – it’s a collapse everywhere,” says Yonadam Kanna, one of the Christian members of parliament. The towns of Karakosh and Tel Keef, both with substantial Christian populations, fell to Islamic State fighters overnight Thursday, along with a string of villages in between, Mr. Kanna said. The fighters burned churches and looted property in some towns.

Sunni-Shiite split

Thursday’s brief parliament session descended into name calling and shouting as a Sunni member of parliament accused the government of using barrel bombs against civilians in Anbar Province. Members of Maliki's Shiite faction responded by calling Sunni lawmakers traitors.  

The session was closed to the press and Iraqi journalists, but they could hear the shouting in the cafeteria as the argument gathered steam and scrambled to see between gaps in the wall. Shiite lawmakers emerged later to speak to reporters and claim that Sunnis were undermining Iraqi security forces.

“We sense the smell of Takfiris,” said one lawmaker, referring to IS's labeling of other sects and religions as apostates. 

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