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Loss of Mosul threatens Iraqi PM's hold on power

Saturday - 6/14/2014, 3:14am  ET

FILE - In this file photo taken Saturday, July 27, 2013, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki speaks during the 32nd anniversary of the foundation of the Badr Organization in Baghdad, Iraq. The disastrous loss of a large swath of the north and two cities to Islamic militants is threatening to cost Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, a third term in office as his longtime Shiite backers turn against him and seek an alternative. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim, File)

QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA
Associated Press

BAGHDAD (AP) -- Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's botched policies and "obsession with power" are quickly eroding his support even among longtime Shiite backers, politicians here say, as the Iraqi leader moved Friday to try to repair his shattered image after the disastrous loss of the north to Islamic militants.

With his job on the line, al-Maliki traveled to Samarra, north of Baghdad, to personally supervise the defense of a city that is home to a revered Shiite shrine against growing attacks. A 2006 bomb attack by Sunni militants on Samarra led to an outbreak of Sunni-Shiite violence that lasted for nearly two years.

In footage shown on state television that seemed clearly aimed at rehabilitating his reputation in the eyes of Shiites, a dour-faced al-Maliki was shown confronting the city's top army commander. Later, he was seen praying at the Shiite shrine -- an apparent reminder of his commitment to his faith and the protection of its followers.

Earlier, the prime minister came under scathing criticism at a meeting of Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish party leaders, with one young up-and-coming Shiite politician angrily telling him his "obsession with power" and botched policies were to blame for this week's debacle.

"Now, I must leave. I have a meeting to go to," a seething Ammar al-Hakim, leader of a key Shiite party, told al-Maliki before storming out of the session Wednesday night, according to a politician who attended and shared the exchange with The Associated Press in return for anonymity.

During eight years in office, al-Maliki has touted himself as the only leader capable of safeguarding the Shiite domination won after the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein -- a Sunni -- and defeating Sunni militants blamed for bombings and attacks against security forces and Shiite civilians.

But those claims have begun to sound increasingly hollow. In December, fighters of a breakaway faction of al-Qaida, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, captured the city of Fallujah in the mainly Sunni province of Anbar, as well as parts of the provincial capital, Ramadi. That put the militants just 30 miles west of Baghdad.

Still, it is the loss this week of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, and Tikrit, Saddam's hometown, along with vast territory in northern Iraq that could potentially herald the end of his tenure.

For years, the once-powerful Sunni Arab minority has complained that al-Maliki was marginalizing them and discriminating against their community, detaining thousands and turning a blind eye to abuses against them by his security forces.

His fellow Shiites complain that he restricts decision-making to himself and a small circle of confidants. The Kurds, who run a self-rule region in the north, have been at loggerheads with him over what they see as his attempts to meddle in their affairs and curb their freedom.

And the complaints are not restricted to Iraqi politicians.

Without mentioning al-Maliki by name, President Barack Obama criticized the Iraqi leader in an address Friday from the South Lawn of the White House.

Saying he is weighing a range of options for countering the Islamic insurgency in Iraq, Obama warned the U.S. will not take military action unless the Baghdad leadership moves to address deep-seated political trouble.

"We're not going to allow ourselves to be dragged back into a situation in which, while we're there we're keeping a lid on things, and after enormous sacrifices by us, after we're not there, people start acting in ways that are not conducive to the long-term stability and prosperity of the country," Obama said.

Obama did not specify what options he was considering, but he ruled out sending American troops back into combat in Iraq. The last U.S. troops withdrew in 2011 after more than eight years of war.

Talk of an alternative to al-Maliki had been rife well before this week's losses, with fellow Shiites, Kurdish politicians and Sunnis insisting that it was time for a change at the top. But al-Maliki, whose coalition won the largest number of seats in parliamentary elections in April, remained unfazed, even cocky.

In recent comments, he said he was confident he would be able to piece together a majority coalition in the 328-seat legislature so he can retain his job. On June 2, he claimed to have the support of 175 lawmakers and counselled those who want to join to agree first with his "program and principles."

The loss of Mosul and Tikrit and the criticism from Obama could change all that.

During Wednesday night's meeting, which brought together Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite leaders, the prime minister was accused of marginalizing his nominal allies, not seeking their counsel and of placing too much trust in Saddam loyalists, including military commanders.

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