ANKARA/BAGHDAD: Regional power broker Iran believes Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri 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 yesterday.
Political deadlock since an inconclusive general election in April has paralysed efforts to fight back against Islamic State rebels who have captured swathes of northern and western Iraq and Syria and have threatened to march on Baghdad.
One Iranian official, who spoke 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 Shia cleric.
“Now, Ayatollah Sistani also backs our view on Maliki.”
“There are not many candidates who can and have the capability to preserve unity of Iraq. Our ambassador to Iraq has had some meetings in the past days with relevant groups and some of the candidates,” the first Iranian official said.
Political allies said Maliki, seen as an authoritarian figure whose sectarian agenda has destabilised Iraq, had no intention of stepping aside despite mounting pressure from Sunnis, Kurds, some fellow Shias and now Iran.
Maliki, a relative unknown when he came to office in 2006, 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.
A senior Iranian security official said Tehran was far more concerned with stabilizing Iraq than with standing by Maliki, whom it long supported.
“With Maliki in power, Iraq will be divided. To fight against the Islamic State, Iraq needs a powerful government and we back this idea. A divided Iraq is a threat to Iran’s national security,” the second official said.
According to the constitution, Iraq’s president has until Friday to ask the person nominated by the biggest bloc in parliament to form a government within 30 days.
But a dispute has arisen in the dominant Shia alliance. Maliki insists his State of Law coalition which won 94 seats in the April parliamentary election is the biggest, while others say it should be counted as part of the alliance and therefore is not entitled to nominate a prime minister on its own.
Maliki, whose sectarian policies critics say have pushed some Sunnis including powerful and heavily-armed tribes to support the Islamic State, has shown no sign of readiness to let go of power.
“Everything that has been said about changing our candidate for the prime minister post is baseless,” said Mohammed 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 Shia coalition, the National Alliance, would favor a new prime minister to end the political stalemate.
The Iraqi minister said several names have been floated.
National Alliance chief Ibrahim Jaafari, who was Maliki’s predecessor, is seen as more moderate. But the trained physician was seen as ineffective against rising sectarian violence when he was in office.
Jaafari spent almost a decade in Iran from 1980 to escape Saddam’s crackdown on a clandestine Shia Islamist movement.
Ahmad Chalabi, the secular Shia politician whose false assertions about weapons of mass destruction encouraged the Bush administration to invade Iraq, is another contender, political sources say.
Iraqi officials say behind-the-scenes attempts have been made to give Maliki a face-saving exit. Under the proposal, Vice President Khudhaier al-Khuzaie would become prime minister and Maliki would take his largely honorific job.
Much will depend on whether Maliki’s powerful allies in the State of Law bloc, like Transport Minister Hadi al-Amiri, continue to support him in the face of growing opposition.