As American bombs fell Friday on Iraqi soil for the first time in more than two years, the attention of Iraqi leaders in Baghdad was firmly fixed elsewhere: the looming vote to form a new government that could coalesce its fight against the Islamic State.
The Pentagon’s announcement that U.S. jets had dropped 500-pound bombs on Islamic State artillery in northern Iraq and President Barack Obama’s declaration that U.S. aircraft had dropped bottled water and food to 40,000 trapped Yazidis to prevent a genocide made the scrolls of local news broadcasts.
The American actions drew little attention from politicians here, however. The office of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has sought U.S. military assistance against Islamic State extremists since last year, did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the bombings.
Ending Maliki’s tenure in office is something the United States has openly pressed for. Many Iraqi politicians now agree, though there’s no agreement on who should replace him.
“Maliki’s name is a red line. It’s not accepted by anyone,” said Fadi al-Shemmari, a lawmaker from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which normally partners with Maliki’s Dawa Party.
Shemmari’s party was one of several Shiite-led blocs that held a series of meetings Thursday and Friday to nominate a prime minister before Parliament reconvenes Sunday.
Maliki has fallen out of favor with some of his former allies. Many Iraqi leaders blame the two-time prime minister for building a sectarian government that isolated Sunni Muslims and created fissures that the Islamic State has exploited to seize control of most of the Sunni areas of the country.
On Thursday, President Barack Obama seemed to look past Maliki when he explained his decision to commit military resources to protect U.S. interests in Iraq.
“Iraqis have named a new president, a new speaker of Parliament and are seeking a consensus on a new prime minister,” he said. “This is the progress that needs to continue in order to reverse the momentum of the terrorists who prey on Iraq’s divisions.”
Maliki does not appear to be backing down, however. On Wednesday, he warned in a weekly radio address that a new government could “open the gates of hell.”
By custom, Iraq chooses a Shiite to be prime minister, a Kurd to be president and a Sunni to be speaker of the Parliament. So the Shiite bloc known as the Iraqi National Alliance is expected to get its choice for prime minister because its parties received the most votes in April elections. The umbrella alliance includes Maliki’s Dawa Party, the Islamic Supreme Council and a party affiliated with cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Some of Maliki’s partners are digging in their heels to keep him in office.
One Dawa lawmaker told Al-Sumaria News that he’d press for a vote of “no confidence” against Iraq President Fouad Massoum if Maliki’s party does not get to nominate its choice for prime minister. The remarks were interpreted as supportive of Maliki.
But there was also new pressure for Maliki to step down from Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Sistani in a sermon delivered by a spokesman warned that politicians who put their self-interest ahead of their country are committing a “grave mistake.”
He urged Iraqi politicians to work together against the Islamic State.
Sistani’s words carry significant weight for Shiite lawmakers and have been interpreted as critical of Maliki.
One former Maliki ally said Shiite lawmakers would break with the prime minister because of the ayatollah’s remarks.
“If Maliki insists on naming himself for prime minister, we cannot disagree with (Sistani),” said the lawmaker, who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the negotiations over the prime minister’s position.