(CNSNews.com) – The Obama administration on Monday sent interim Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki the clearest signal yet that he has lost Washington’s support.
The message first came in a statement by Secretary of State John Kerry, welcoming the Iraqi president’s announcement that Shi’ite politician Haider al-Abadi will be prime minister and form a new government.
Shortly afterwards President Obama, speaking in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. where he is on vacation, also welcomed the announcement, calling it “an important step towards forming a new government that can unite Iraq’s different communities.”
Neither Obama or Kerry mentioned Maliki by name.
Their statements came shortly after Maliki had angrily rejected the nomination of Abadi – a former advisor to the prime minister and a member of Maliki’s Dawa party.
In a televised statement, Maliki stressed that he was the head of Dawa and the armed forces, hinting that he may not go without a fight. On Sunday troops acting on his orders established a visible presence at key points around the government complex in Baghdad.
The U.S. regards Maliki, who has been in power for eight years, as a divisive figure and impediment to efforts to unite Iraq’s Shi’ite majority and Sunni and Kurdish minorities in the struggle against jihadists led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), which now calls itself the Islamic State.
The U.S. would typically not take sides in a messy government-formation dispute in which both sides accuse the other of breaching the country’s constitution, but Maliki’s stubbornness and the threat posed by ISIS, now the target of U.S. airstrikes in the north, appear to have tipped the scales.
Kerry, who is in Australia, said the U.S. welcomed President Fuad Masum’s charging of al-Abadi with the task of forming the new government and urged the prime minister-designate to ensure that it “is representative of the Iraqi people and inclusive of Iraq’s religious and ethnic identities.”
“The United States will continue to support Iraq’s democratic process and stand with the Iraqi people in their fight against terrorism,” he added.
Up to now the administration’s position, in public at least, has been that it’s up to Iraqis themselves to determine their leaders – even as it stressed the need to speed up the drawn-out process after elections were held last April.
The sense of urgency heightened when ISIS in early June swept across large parts of northern and western Iraq, capturing the key city of Mosul, then Tikrit and numerous other towns and villages and triggering a humanitarian crisis as hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fled, many of them members of non-Muslim minorities. The group then declared a “caliphate” across areas of Iraq and Syria under its control.
As the situation worsened through July, the administration faced growing calls for U.S. intervention to stop the jihadists, but maintained that the formation of a new, inclusive government was the priority.
As ISIS advanced, the political process in Baghdad moved slowly ahead. Lawmakers on July 15 elected Salim al-Jabouri, a Sunni politician from Diyala, to be speaker of parliament, and on July 24 elected Masum, a Kurd, to the largely ceremonial post of president. (Iraqi political tradition in the post-Saddam era is for the president to be a Kurd, a Sunni to be parliamentary speaker, and a Shi’ite to be prime minister.)
But the third and most important of the three key posts remained unfilled, as Maliki insisted as the head of the largest bloc of lawmakers elected in April he should remain at the helm and serve a third term.
Last week Obama finally agreed to intervene militarily, citing the threat ISIS posed to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region, and the urgent humanitarian crisis faced by tens of thousands of members of the Yazidi religious minority, besieged on a mountain after fleeing the ISIS advance in the Sinjar area a week earlier.
Since August 7 the U.S. has carried out 15 airstrikes against ISIS positions, and – together with British aircraft – 14 airdrops of bundles of water and food to the trapped Yazidis on Mount Sinjar, the Pentagon reported Monday.
Al-Abadi now has 30 days to form a new government, during which time Maliki’s interim administration remains in place. The situation remains tense, as Iraqis wait to see whether key Shi’ite groups, including some Dawa allies and the Badr organization which has close ties to Iran, side with or against Maliki.
In his statement Monday, Obama urged “all Iraqi political leaders to work peacefully through the political process in the days ahead.”