Iraq crisis exclusive: US rules out military action until Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki stands down

 

Baghdad

The US has told senior Iraqi officials that the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, must leave office if it is to intervene militarily to stop the advance of Sunni extremists, The Independent has learnt. The Sunni community sees Mr Maliki as the main architect of its oppression and the Americans believe there can be no national reconciliation between Sunni and Shia unless he ceases to be leader of the country. 

Mr Maliki is showing every sign of wanting to cling to power despite the disasters of the past 10 days during which his army of 350,000 men, on which $41.6bn (£24.5bn) has been spent by Iraq since 2011, has disintegrated after being attacked by a far less numerous foe. He has blamed Saudi Arabia, the Kurds and treacherous generals, but has offered no real explanation nor taken responsibility for the defeat.

Mr Maliki was effectively appointed by the US in 2006 but is today seen as being under the influence of Iran. The Iranian leadership is divided on whether or not to withdraw its support from Mr Maliki and see Shia dominance and Iranian power in Iraq diluted. Iranian commanders have taken over central direction of the Iraqi army, but Iraqi politicians do not believe that Iran has a coherent plan to rescue the Baghdad government from the crisis. The Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, said that “the great Iranian nation will not hesitate to defend the holy [Shia] shrines”. These are at Samarra in the front line, al-Kadhimiya in Baghdad and Najaf and Karbala further south.  

The most effective shape for US military support would be air strikes on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) fighters called in by American forward air controllers operating with Iraqi units. Drones would be largely useless against an elusive and lightly armed enemy, though US air strikes of any type would raise the morale of the Iraqi military and the Shia population.

 

There is a constitutional way of getting rid of Mr Maliki when the Iraqi parliament meets before the end of June. It must choose a speaker and a president who will then ask a member of the largest party to form a government. It is unlikely that Mr Maliki would be chosen Prime Minister as other parties unite against him. “It is impossible that he should serve a third term,” said an Iraq politician who did not want to be named.

But parliamentary procedures may be too slow to remove Mr Maliki and put in place a new Iraqi leadership capable of withstanding an uprising by Iraq’s five or six million Sunni population, led by Isis but including seven or eight other armed groups. The pace of the Isis advance has slowed north of Baghdad in recent days, but it is still capturing Sunni towns and villages where much of the armed male population joins it. The original force of Isis fighters, sometimes put at 10,000 men, is thereby multiplied many times.

This happened in the Sunni town of Hibhib near Baquba, which is 40 miles north-east of Baghdad, over the last two days. A local woman speaking by phone said: “Less than 100 Daesh [Isis] came into the town and soon became more than 2,000 armed men. Even teenagers aged 14 and 15 are carrying rifles and setting up checkpoints.”

The general support for the Sunni revolt in northern and western Iraq will make it very difficult for any counter-offensive, which would be facing far more opponents than Isis originally fielded. Isis now controls almost all the Euphrates valley from Fallujah west of Baghdad through western Iraq and eastern Syria as far as the Turkish border. Any long-term campaign against Isis by the Iraqi government backed by US air power would require air strikes in Syria as well as Iraq. The two countries have effectively become a single battlefield.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (AP) Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (AP)
The success or failure of the US and Mr Maliki’s domestic opponents in replacing him in the next few weeks will be crucial in determining the future of the conflict. A chief reason why Isis, Sunni armed groups and the Sunni population have been able to form a loose common front against the government is the antipathy of the Sunni population to Mr Maliki. They see him as systematically reducing them to second-class citizens and putting as many as 100,000 in jail, with prisoners often held because of confessions extorted by torture or without any charge at all. Hostility to Mr Maliki provides part of the glue that holds the Sunni coalition together.  

But the Iraqi government’s problems are immediate and require intelligent leadership which continues to be lacking. This was shown in Mosul last week where two senior generals took off their uniforms and fled to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s semi-independent zone. Overall, some 230,000 soldiers are reported to have deserted their units.

Mr Maliki continues to take many military decisions himself. Iraqi sources say that just before Isis stormed Tal Afar, a Shia Turkoman city of 300,000 west of Mosul, last weekend the KRG President Masoud Barzani sent a message to Mr Maliki offering to send peshmerga (Kurdish soldiers) to defend it. Mr Maliki rejected the proposal. Such peshmerga as were in Tal Afar were withdrawn and Isis took over.

Unless it is too over-extended to make further advances, Isis may think it in its interests to strike quickly at Baghdad before the US and Iran decide what to do and while the political and military leadership in Baghdad is in turmoil. The Shia are the majority in the capital but there are Sunni enclaves in west Baghdad which might rise up.

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce meets with Iraqi Ambassador to the United States Luqman Abd al-Rahim Fayli on Capitol Hill (Getty) House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce meets with Iraqi Ambassador to the United States Luqman Abd al-Rahim Fayli on Capitol Hill (Getty)
Living conditions all over northern and central Iraq will get more difficult as the economic unity of the country is broken. Baghdadis mostly cook on bottled propane gas, but this can no longer be supplied from Kirkuk because the road is cut by Isis. The insurgents have also taken three-quarters of Baiji refinery according an official speaking from inside the plant. The government’s version of what has happened at Baiji according to state television is that 44 Isis fighters were killed and survivors fled.

Mr Maliki’s best chance of staving off calls for his departure is that the threat to Baghdad will get so severe that Washington and Tehran will have to give support even if he stays. He has already been strengthened by the Shia clerical leadership in Najaf calling for people to join the Iraqi army. Not everything that has gone wrong in Iraq is Mr Maliki’s fault, but his responsibility for the present catastrophe is too great for him to play a positive role in averting a sectarian civil war.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
  • Get to the point
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own