As the United States mulls whether or not to provide military support to Iraq in its battle against Sunni insurgents, recent reports indicate the White House wants Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki out of power.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the Obama administration is certain that Maliki will be unable or unwilling to create a governing body that encompasses Iraq’s Sunni minority. As a result, American officials told the newspaper that a new governing body made up of Sunnis and Shiites would be necessary to bring some kind of peace to the country – one that does not include Maliki.
The UK-based Independent went further, stating that the United States isn’t just convinced a new political coalition is necessary – it is withholding military support until the prime minister steps down. The White House has reportedly told senior Iraqi officials Maliki must go so that the Sunni and Shia can have a chance at reconciliation.
Although the Obama administration has not come out and publically stated Maliki’s time as prime minister is up, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said on Wednesday that it’s clear the current government has not done enough to quell fears of sectarian rule.
"There's no question that not enough has been done by the government, including the prime minister, to govern inclusively, and that that has contributed to the situation and the crisis that we have today in Iraq," he said, according to the Journal.
"The Iraqi people will have to decide the makeup of the next coalition government and who is the prime minister. Whether it's the current prime minister or another leader, we will aggressively attempt to impress upon that leader the absolute necessity of rejecting sectarian governance."
Although militants in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have made rapid gains through northern Iraq, it’s believed that many Sunnis have lent the extremist group their support because Iraq’s Shia-led central government has failed to give them a real stake in the country’s future.
The belief that Maliki’s time in office was also echoed by a senior Arab official in the wake of a failed “unity meeting” that took place between Maliki, Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish leaders.
"We believe that Maliki's sectarianism and exclusion of Sunnis has led to the insurgency we are seeing," the official said. "He unfortunately managed to unite ISIS with the former Baathists and Saddam supporters."
Despite the growing calls for his resignation, there is no indication Maliki will do so. According to the Guardian, the prime minister’s spokesman, Zuhair al-Nahar, said Maliki will not step down “as a condition of US air strikes.”
Speaking with BBC Radio 4’s Today program, Nahar denied that Maliki ever used “sectarian tactics,” and said the US should be focused on helping the country defeat the insurgents instead of kicking out current leaders.
"Our focus needs to be on urgent action – air support, logistic support, counter-intelligence support to defeat these terrorists who are posing a real danger to the stability of Iraq, to the whole region," he said.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry told NBC News that the administration is concerned with what’s best for the Iraqi people, not the current prime minister.
"This is not about Maliki," Kerry said. “Nothing that the president decides to do is going to be focused specifically on Prime Minister Maliki. It is focused on the people of Iraq.”
Despite requests for air strikes and drone use by the Iraqi government, at this point it remains unclear just what President Obama will decide to do. As RT reported previously, the use of air strikes would be complicated by the fact that the US lacks the kind of clear intel necessary to ensure military action would succeed.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Obama has explored the use of air power to help turn back ISIS forces, but noted that he is also concerned with creating a political environment that would last after any military campaign is over.
That sentiment was repeated on Wednesday evening, when the former commander of American forces in Iraq, David Petraeus, said the use of military force in Iraq would be unwise barring the formation of a fair governing body. The former general and CIA director said without that, the US may further destabilize the country by joining what has the potential to become a civil war.
“This cannot be the United States being the air force for Shia militias, or a Shia on Sunni Arab fight,” Petraeus told the Daily Beast.
“If America is to support then it would be in support of a government against extremists rather than one side of what could be a sectarian civil war. It has to be a fight of all of Iraq against extremists, who happen to be Sunni Arabs, but extremists that are wreaking havoc on a country."
As the White House continues to deliberate its next steps, though, insurgents continue to move through Iraq. Militants have already captured Tal Afar and Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, and have gathered around Iraq’s largest oil refinery, called Baiji. As noted by the Guardian, failing to defend Baiji would be a devastating loss for the government, as it supplies 30 percent of the country’s oil resources.
"If we got US drones to hit Baiji, and jets to bomb Isis elsewhere, we could slow them down," a senior Iraqi MP said to news outlet. "Without them we can do nothing. Without them we can't win."