JUNE 26, 2014
Support for Maliki Slips Within His Own Party as Armed U.S. Drones Start Flights
By ROD NORDLAND, ERIC SCHMITT and SUADAD AL-SALHY
BAGHDAD -- As the first armed American drones began flying over Iraq on Thursday, Shiite political leaders were locked in meetings to try to decide who should be the country's next prime minister. For the first time, some of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki's own party members expressed doubt that he would be a viable candidate.
Their consultations came against a backdrop of new mayhem from the Sunni-led insurgency that has upended the country and sharpened divisions over whether Mr. Maliki, leader the Shiite-dominated government for seven years, is capable of rescuing Iraq from its worst crisis since the American military left in 2011.
Also, government forces claimed a rare victory over extremists ensconced at a university in the northern city of Tikrit; nine unidentified young men were found shot to death in a town south of Baghdad; and a bomb killed at least 12 people in a Shiite neighborhood of the capital.
And a Pentagon official in Washington said armed Predator drone patrols had started flying over Baghdad, an operation meant to offer added protection to the first American military assessment teams that are fanning out in and around Baghdad to help the Iraqi military combat the insurgents.
The Predators, equipped with Hellfire missiles, will augment about 40 unarmed reconnaissance flights that a combination of manned and unmanned American aircraft are flying over Iraq each day. The armed drones departed from an air base in Kuwait, the Pentagon official said.
Iraqiya, the state television network, said Parliament would be convened on Monday, within the postelection deadline set by the Constitution. That set off an intense round of meetings among political factions in the hope of creating a consensus beforehand.
Western diplomats, as well as the powerful clerics of Iraq's Shiite majority, have urged Mr. Maliki's interim government to expedite a new government,  encouraging Mr. Maliki to bring in Sunnis and Kurds to give it more credibility in its fight with Sunni extremists.
But he has so far refused to make any of the concessions demanded by Sunnis and Kurds, arousing alarm even among other Shiite groups. Some have tried to forge an alliance  with Sunnis and Kurds to replace the prime minister.
That has appeared difficult. Mr. Maliki's State of Law party controls at least 92 of Parliament's 328 seats, with a variety of other parties having no more than 33 each. A 165-seat majority is needed to form a government.
Now, however, at least two members of Mr. Maliki's State of Law bloc have publicly expressed concern about Mr. Maliki's viability.
"It will be very difficult for Maliki to keep his position," said Abdul Karim al-Anzi, a former minister of national security and a prominent Shiite lawmaker in the State of Law coalition. "The situation is very complicated and the talks are still far away from reaching a solution. The prime minister keeps saying he has the biggest bloc, but the others are not satisfied to see him keeping his position. Kurds as well as Sunnis are asking to replace him. The Sunnis and Kurds will have serious objections to him."
Hussein al-Muraibi, a leader of the Fadhila party, part of Mr. Maliki's bloc, said there was no way to recruit Sunnis to a new government without replacing Mr. Maliki. "We want to change Maliki as a good-will gesture," he said, stressing that he was expressing his opinion. "The battle is partially political, and the enemies are using Maliki and what he did as a pretext to mobilize people inside and outside Iraq against the Shiites and the political process."
Four other leading Shiite politicians -- two within Mr. Maliki's bloc and two in allied parties -- also expressed reservations about keeping Mr. Maliki for a third term, but were unwilling to be quoted by name because of the sensitivities of the discussions.
The results of the April 30 election were certified by Iraq's highest court on June 17, and the Constitution requires Parliament to convene within 15 days, so Tuesday, July 1, would be the latest possible date. The Parliament first selects a speaker, and then elects a president, vice presidents and a prime minister in a process that may take months, judging by previous elections.
Many political leaders and diplomats have expressed hope that the government formation could move more quickly than in the past, given the threat to the country from Islamic militants who have advanced to within less than 50 miles of the capital since overrunning the northern city of Mosul on June 10.
Once the date for Parliament was confirmed, the Shiite National Alliance, which includes Mr. Maliki's party as well as other Shiite parties, began meeting in an effort to agree on who would fill the top positions, including prime minister, to present it on Monday in the hope of quickly forming a government.
But the leading Sunni grouping, the Muttahidoon coalition, issued a statement Thursday raising questions about whether it would even attend Parliament if the Shiite National Alliance had not decided on a prime minister, apparently meaning a replacement for Mr. Maliki, whom Muttahidoon has opposed.
Nabil Salim, a political scientist from Baghdad University, said, "It is a very dangerous period and no one knows what's going to happen."
Many Sunnis in particular want to see a constitutional change to limit future prime ministers to two terms. Sunnis also want a guarantee of one of the top security ministries, either defense or police, and the release of prisoners who have been held without charges or even, in many cases, after their acquittals.
Kurds want concessions allowing them to export and sell oil found in Kurdish areas, without central government permission.
So far Mr. Maliki has proved unwilling to make any concessions satisfactory to Sunnis and Kurds.
"There is no way to make any deal with Sunnis and Kurds without getting rid of Maliki," said one prominent Shiite politician. Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish politician who did not run for Parliament in the recent elections, was pessimistic about the possibility of a deal to replace Mr. Maliki, and warned that the Parliament might end up stalemated despite the threat from advancing Sunni militants. "That would be a disaster," he said. "The blocs, they don't care about the country, they care only for themselves."
The urgency of the discussions was underscored with a report Thursday about the nine young men found dead, in Mahmudiya, south of Baghdad, a community that experienced severe sectarian bloodletting by Shiites and Sunnis in 2006. The men had all had been shot multiple times and dumped under a highway bridge, according to an official in the Ministry of Information, speaking on the condition of anonymity as a matter of government policy. Within hours, the official said, a bomb exploded in the Kadhimiya neighborhood, a Shiite enclave near an important religious shrine, killing 12 people and wounding 35.
In northern Salhuddin Province, the Iraqi Army scored an apparent success against militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, striking well behind the lines of the militants' advance and recapturing the grounds of Salhuddin University in Tikrit. According to police officials and eyewitnesses in Tikrit, Iraqi warplanes first bombed ISIS positions on the campus, and then army paratroopers were dropped in to take control of it. While ISIS occupies most of Tikrit city, the Iraqi military controls a large air base, Camp Speicher, on the outskirts. Iraqi military officials said "tens" of militants had been killed and their commander wounded, although he escaped.
Senior American officials say President Obama has not ruled out airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq or Syria, but is waiting for the military teams to complete their assessments on both the Iraqi security forces and the Sunni militants that have swept across northern and western Iraq, before taking any further military action.
Any drone strike now would require Mr. Obama's personal approval, two senior Pentagon officials said, and would most likely be conducted only to defend American advisers. A Pentagon spokesman said on Thursday that 90 more advisers had arrived in Iraq, bringing the total there to 180. Half will be assigned to assessment units and half to the Joint Operations Center in Baghdad. The commander of the Iraq mission, the spokesman added, will be Maj. Gen. Dana J.H. Pittard of the Army.
In Paris, Secretary of State John Kerry met on Thursday with counterparts from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, all deeply suspicious of Mr. Maliki, whom they fear is too close to Iran, which is also funneling military aid to Iraq.
Iraq's Embattled Leader
Elected in 2006 as a compromise candidate, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki now heads a shaky Shiite-led government in a fractured country facing a mortal threat from Sunni insurgents.
* From an educated middle-class Shiite  background. Active in sectarian politics since the early 1970s, when he joined the mainly Shiite Islamic Dawa Party. 
* In 1978 he fled to Syria, returning in 2002, just before the American-led invasion.
* Was deputy chairman  of the commission that purged members of Saddam Hussein's party from public life, earning the enmity of many Sunnis.
* Worked to win over Sunni tribal leaders and campaigned against sectarianism in 2007-9.
* Built and maintained ties with Iran, where he spent time while in exile.
* Split with former allies and formed his own political coalition  in 2010.
* Did not reach agreement  with the United States to retain American troops in the country.
* Has come under growing criticism for amassing personal power and favoring Shiite interests.
Rod Nordland and Suadad Al-Salhy reported from Baghdad, and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Duraid Adnan contributed reporting from Baghdad, and Michael R. Gordon from Paris.