A crucial parliamentary session to begin the process of forming a new government and deciding the political future of embattled premier Nouri al-Maliki kicks off Tuesday, following mortar fire near a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra.
Alarming regional and world powers, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) claimed universal authority Sunday, declaring its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was now caliph of the Muslim world. The move, at the start of the holy month of Ramadan, follows a three-week drive for territory by ISIS militants and allies among Iraqi’s Sunni minority.
The crisis has battered Maliki’s reputation, with some critics saying his days in office may be numbered.
The incumbent may have won by far the most seats and personal votes in April 30 polls, but events since then have left him increasingly isolated, as pressure piles on Iraqi leaders to swiftly form a government to help see off the jihadist-led advance.
With parliament to open its first session Tuesday, Iraq’s 328 MPs were to choose a new speaker, a national president and a prime minister.
But Maliki’s Sunni and Kurdish rivals are refusing to grant him a third term, while his own bloc – less cohesive than during the previous 2010 election – has been subsumed into a pan-Shiite alliance, thereby lessening his clout.
“There is a discussion going on” within Maliki’s State of Law alliance over whether to replace the premier, said a Western diplomat on condition of anonymity. “It is quite a critical few days ... This is an important period politically.”
Maliki staked his reputation as the leader who brought violence under control in 2008 as Iraq emerged from a brutal Sunni-Shiite sectarian war.But a rise in unrest this year, culminating in the sudden advance of jihadist-led Sunni militants who overran swathes of territory, has done significant damage.
The formal resurrection of the pan-Shiite National Alliance coalition, that includes State of Law and rival groups, further dilutes Maliki’s claim to the post, which was based on his party having won nearly three times as many seats in the polls as the next closest contender.
The recreation of the NA instead raises the specter of a prime ministerial candidate emerging from any of the alliance’s constituent parties.
“After the election, his chances were good, but the security breakdown in the country has clearly hurt him,” said Hakim al-Zamili, an MP from the Ahrar bloc loyal to powerful Shiite preacher Moqtada al-Sadr.
“Maliki’s chances now are weak under these circumstances – the security problems, problems with the Sunnis, the Sadrists, the Kurds.”
Under a de facto agreement, the Iraqi premier – by far the most powerful position in the country – is typically a Shiite Arab, the parliament speaker is Sunni Arab, and the national president a Kurd.
Though no single candidate has emerged as the front-runner to replace Maliki, several names from within the country’s majority Shiite community have been floated.
Well-known figures such as former Vice President Adel Abdel-Mehdi, ex-premier Ibrahim al-Jaafari, and ex-deputy premier Ahmad Chalabi are all being touted alongside backroom power brokers such as Maliki’s current chief of staff Tareq Najim.
Maliki’s supporters insist he is still the man to lead the country and warned that – with Iraq mired in what U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has called an “existential” conflict – replacing the premier, who doubles as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, could worsen instability.
Former MP and Maliki ally Sami al-Askari said the timing was wrong.
“If ... there is no current battle, or the current war, OK, maybe. We have time, we have space to change the prime minister, to change the commander,” he said. But “this is not the time for the change.”
“He is not prime minister only. He is the head of the army, and Iraq is in a war.”
The United States said Monday the declaration of an Islamic caliphate on territory they have seized in Iraq and Syria has “no meaning.”
“We have seen these types of words or comparable claims from ISIS before,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters, referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militant group.
“This declaration has no meaning for the people in Iraq and Syria,” she said, adding that it just “exposed the true nature of this organization and its desire to control people by fear.”
Syrian rebels, including the main Islamist factions, said the creation of a caliphate was “null and void.”
Fighters from the group overran the Iraqi city of Mosul on June 10 and have advanced toward Baghdad. On Monday evening, three mortars landed near the gate of a much-revered Shiite shrine in Samarra, wounding at least nine people, officials said.
The golden domed Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra is one of the holiest shrines in Shiite Islam. Sunni militants blew up the dome in 2006, helping trigger some of the country’s worst sectarian bloodshed.
Elsewhere, Iraqi forces pressed a counteroffensive against executed dictator Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit.
A security source based near Tikrit said reinforcements had arrived with tanks and artillery Monday.
An army officer said troops controlled parts of the city outskirts, some 160 kilometers north of Baghdad, which the militants captured on June 11.
Nearly 2,000 people were killed this month, the highest figure since May 2007, according to government figures released Monday.