BEIRUT: As senior figures from both sides of the U.S. political divide are calling for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to quit, analysts warned that while it was unlikely for the current crisis to recede with him still in power, it might be too early for the Obama administration to echo this stance.
Facing a growing insurgency led by ISIS, Maliki’s position – which he has held since 2006 – looks increasingly untenable. The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has taken advantage of latent discontent with the Shiite-led government, which has marginalized much of the Sunni population.
Obama warned last week that Maliki must be less sectarian in his leadership, and in a phone call Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden told the Iraqi leader that he must govern in an “inclusive manner, promote stability and unity among Iraq’s population, and address the legitimate needs of Iraq’s diverse communities,” a White House statement said.
But Maliki retains a support base and fared well in recent parliamentary elections, his State of Law party winning 28 percent of seats, and along with his allies he won the largest share, 100 seats out of 328.
“If foreign powers try to intervene and pressure the prime minister it could create resentment in different quarters of Iraq,” said John Drake, an Iraq analyst with the AKE Group.
You can’t ignore that Maliki and his allied parties won most of the votes in the April elections. He clearly has a degree of support among the Iraqi public, and did so even when parts of Anbar province were beyond his control.”
“To override this would be to rebuff the very democracy that the U.S. tried to install in the country,” Drake added.
For months now, ISIS has held Fallujah and other parts of Anbar, and last week took Iraq’s second city, Mosul, the rest of Ninevah province, and Saddam Hussein’s hometown, Tikrit. Its advances toward Baghdad do not look to be slowing down, but Maliki has vowed to recapture lost territory.
Ellen Laipson, president of U.S.-based security firm Stimson, sees the possibility that the current crisis may even increase support for Maliki in some quarters.
“There’s a paradox right now that he might have a surge of strength,” she said, at this time of a “genuine crisis.”
Outside powers, though, should “use this vulnerability to get his attention,” and persuade him to share power, otherwise the entire country could be facing an existential crisis.
“If he falls he could bring down the Iraqi state with him,” Laipson said.
Kurds, long having sought their own state, have taken the opportunity to seize the northern city of Kirkuk as they simultaneously battle ISIS.
To find a silver lining in the current situation, which has seen hundreds of thousands of civilians fleeing their homes and possibly thousands of security forces and civilians killed, Laipson said, would be to see this as a chance for the prime minister to reform politically.
However, she cautioned: “His own sectarian attitudes are so deeply held that I don’t expect him to transform into a more tolerable person overnight.”
Maliki could voluntarily step aside, Laipson said, “but it’s not our job to tell him to do that,” she added, “as he does have some legitimacy.”
Ultimately, while Maliki is not the “perfect leader,” the U.S. doesn’t see any easy alternative to him at this point, she said.
If attempts at reconciliation and dialogue are made to bring the Sunni community “back into the fold of the Iraqi state it will be difficult to do so as long as Maliki is in power,” Drake said.
“There will likely be a lot of mistrust among the Sunni community of any government led by him because of the amount of what they see as discrimination which has taken place under his leadership. Bridging the gap in trust will take a long time.”
Jordan Perry, principal MENA analyst at risk advisory company Maplecroft, said that as moderate Sunni elements in the north had ruled out cooperating with Maliki even before the current crisis, “the possibility of the crisis ending with Maliki in power is increasingly remote.”
Perry said that the growing calls in Washington for Maliki to step aside will play on Obama’s decision-making, but that the domestic atmosphere in Iraq will likely be more influential.
“If it becomes clear that Maliki is losing support from large portions of the Sunni and Shiite electorate that will encourage the Americans to jump ship,” he said.
Too much procrastination on the part of the Obama administration would also be a dangerous game, Perry warned.
“If the U.S. really intervenes too late in the game in Iraq, they could lose further influence to Iran,” he said, which “would be a real issue for the Obama administration.”
Awkwardly aligned in their friendships with Maliki, the U.S. and Iran are both watching the current situation very closely.
Whereas the U.S. may well soon request Maliki’s departure, Iran is “keen to see him remain in power and will do as much as they can to help him in power,” Perry said, as evidenced by reports of Revolutionary Guard already on the ground in Iraq and clashing with ISIS.
Iran too sees flaws in Maliki, Laipson said, but, like the U.S., currently wants for lack of a better option.
“He is not their preferred Shiite. I expect that they seem him as a deeply flawed leader, as we do, but is there an alternative?”
Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said Thursday in a media call that a compromise situation may be reached which would appease external backers of both the government in Baghdad and the Sunni opposition.
There “may be a formula where his party remains in power but Maliki himself steps down. This formula is likely to be acceptable to Saudi Arabia and Iran.”
But it was important, she added, for outside players not to focus their energies on trying to push Maliki out, but instead on trying to persuade him to incorporate Sunnis into the army, and to come through on all the other failed promises of his career as prime minister.