BAGHDAD: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused Friday to give up his quest for a third term in power, defying a chorus of critics demanding he step aside as the country faces a Islamist insurgent threat.
Maliki has come under mounting pressure since militants from the Al-Qaeda splinter group ISIS and Iraqi Sunni insurgents swept across the country last month.
“I will never give up my candidacy for the post of prime minister,” Maliki said in a statement read out on state television by an announcer.
“I will remain a soldier, defending the interests of Iraq and its people,” he added, in the face of what he called terrorists and their allies.
He was referring to ISIS and some of the most prominent Sunni insurgent groups who have taken control of large parts of majority-Sunni regions of Iraq.
Maliki’s statement will complicate the struggle to form a new government to unite the ethnically and religiously divided country.
Accused by his critics of exacerbating the country’s sectarian divisions, Maliki has come under immense pressure to step down from his Sunni and Kurdish political foes, and even from some in his own Shiite camp.
In pointed comments in a Friday sermon read by an aide, the country’s leading Shiite sheikh said that parliament’s inability to form a new government at its first session was a “regrettable failure.”
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani reiterated his call for the government to have “broad national acceptance,” a phrase that many officials interpret as a call for Maliki – accused by Sunnis of marginalizing them and worsening ethnic tensions – to go.
Maliki’s announcement came hours after former parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, a leading Maliki rival, said he would not nominate himself for another term, to make it easier for the Shiite political parties to replace the premier.
“Out of respect for [the pan-Shiite National Alliance] and in order to achieve the interests of the people and the country and to defend the oppressed ... I have decided not to nominate myself,” said Nujaifi.
The first meeting of the Iraqi parliament since its election in April collapsed without agreement earlier this week when Kurds and Sunnis walked out, complaining that Shiite lawmakers had not yet determined their candidate for prime minister.
Near the border with Syria, a helicopter gunship hit a house in the town of Qaim near the Syrian border, where a gathering of ISIS local leaders was taking place, according to Sabah Nuaman, the spokesman for Iraq’s counterterrorism services.
He said there were several casualties, but was unable to give a concrete figure.
Meanwhile, a suicide bomber detonated an explosives-rigged vehicle at a security forces position north of Baghdad Friday, killing 15 people, police and a doctor said.
The attack, south of the sensitive shrine city of Samarra in Salaheddin province, also wounded 25 people.
Samarra, 15 kilometers north of where the attack took place, is home to the revered Shiite Al-Askari shrine, which was bombed in February 2006, sparking a bloody sectarian war.
There was some encouragement for the Iraqi army on the battlefield, however. Late Thursday it scored a symbolic victory by recapturing Awja, the home village of Saddam Hussein, from the insurgents.