ANKARA/BAGHDAD: Iran believes Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is no longer able to hold his country together and is looking for an alternative leader to combat a Sunni Islamist insurgency, senior Iranian officials said Tuesday.
Political deadlock since an inconclusive general election in April has paralyzed efforts to fight back against ISIS rebels who have captured swaths of northern and western Iraq and Syria and have threatened to march on Baghdad.
One Iranian official, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said Tehran was working with Iraqi factions to seek a replacement for Maliki, but there were few viable alternatives.
“We have reached the conclusion that Maliki cannot preserve the unity of Iraq anymore, but Ayatollah [Ali] Sistani still has hopes,” said the Iranian official, referring to Iraq’s top Shiite cleric. “Now, Ayatollah Sistani also backs our view on Maliki.”
“There are not many candidates who can and have the capability to preserve the unity of Iraq. Our ambassador to Iraq has had some meetings in the past days with relevant groups and some of the candidates,” the Iranian official said.
Political allies said Maliki, seen as an authoritarian figure whose sectarian agenda has destabilized Iraq, had no intention of stepping aside despite mounting pressure from Sunnis, Kurds, some fellow Shiites and now Iran. Maliki has stayed on in a caretaker capacity since the April vote and said he would seek a third term, despite widespread opposition.
An Iraqi minister, speaking on condition of anonymity because of sectarian tensions within the caretaker government, confirmed that there was a marked change in the position of Tehran, the biggest foreign influence in Iraq.
The United States has urged Iraqi politicians to form a more inclusive government that can unify Iraqis and take on ISIS, the Al-Qaeda splinter group that swept through the north in June, almost unopposed by Maliki’s U.S.-trained army.
A senior Iranian security official said Tehran was far more concerned with stabilizing Iraq than with standing by Maliki, whom it supported.
“With Maliki in power, Iraq will be divided. To fight against the Islamic State [ISIS], Iraq needs a powerful government and we back this idea. A divided Iraq is a threat to Iran’s national security,” the official said.
Political bickering and complex procedures are holding back efforts to form a power-sharing government as parliament postponed a discussion Tuesday to decide who will be the country’s next prime minister.
Maliki’s State of Law bloc won the most votes in elections in April, but lawmakers still cannot agree on whether State of Law or the larger coalition it is part of should put forward the nominee for the country’s top political office, Kurdish lawmaker Perwan Muslih said.
The discussion over the new prime minister is set for Thursday, she said.
But Maliki’s core supporters dismissed talk of alternatives. “Everything that has been said about changing our candidate for the prime minister post is baseless,” said Mohammad al-Saihoud, a State of Law MP. “State of Law is the biggest bloc in parliament and our only candidate is Nouri al-Maliki. It’s our constitutional prerogative and we are determined to stick to this right.”
Speculation has been rising that the ruling Shiite coalition, the National Alliance, would favor a new prime minister to end the political stalemate.
An Iraqi minister said several names have been floated, including National Alliance chief Ibrahim Jaafari, who was Maliki’s predecessor and is seen as more moderate, and Ahmad Chalabi, whose false assertions about weapons of mass destruction encouraged the Bush administration to invade Iraq, is another contender, political sources say.