Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Shiite politician Ayad Allawi. This version has been corrected.
The Obama administration has been actively seeking alternatives to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as Iraq approaches the formation of a new government following recent parliamentary elections, according to U.S. officials.
When the current crisis began last week, the administration told Maliki in no uncertain terms that time was short for his Shiite-dominated government to reach out to Sunni and Kurdish communities with new offers of political inclusion. Otherwise, officials said, Kurds would likely see the upheaval as an opportunity to form their own state, while at least some Sunnis would likely join with Islamist militants advancing on the capital.
Since then, while Maliki has taken some tentative steps, there has been virtually no substantive movement, officials said.
In recent days, U.S. representatives on the ground in Baghdad — led by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk and Ambassador Robert Stephen Beecroft — have consulted with Sunni, Kurdish and Shiites outside Maliki’s governing alliance, to explore the possibility of forming a new government without him.
Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak said he had met with Beecroft and McGurk the previous day and that they indicated indirectly that the U.S. government wants Maliki to go.
“They didn’t say it directly, but between the lines they realize we can’t sit together with Maliki,” he said.
“The impression I have is that neither the United States or Europe or the Arab states want him anymore. He did not lead an inclusive government, terrorism has increased and we reached the point where we are today.”
On Wednesday night, Vice President Biden called Osama al-Nujaifi, the Sunni speaker of Iraq’s parliament and an outspoken critic of Maliki, to say that the United States would like to see an inclusive Iraqi government, including Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, according to Nujaifi’s spokesman Dhafer Al-Ani.
“Biden didn’t say he wanted Maliki out, but he said the United States didn’t support Maliki,” he said. “We made clear our position that we would not be part of a government headed by Maliki.”
Beecroft had met with Nujaifi earlier in the day to stress that Iraqi parties should forge ahead with creating a government, Ani said.
“Maliki’s chance of becoming the new prime minister has become very low,” he said, adding that Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni parties were all pushing forward alternatives to the prime minister. Bayan Jabr, a former interior minister, is among those being mooted, he said.
Maliki’s spokesman Ali al-Musawi said that this is the wrong time to seek Maliki’s removal. For him to step down now “would not only mean chaos, it would be surrender to terrorists,” he said.
Although Maliki’s alliance won the most votes in April elections, with 92 out of 328 parliamentary seats, he must build a majority coalition in order to retain control of the government. The Iraqi Supreme Court certified the election results on Monday, starting a timeline for government formation.
The irony of the current crisis, a senior administration official said as the outreach began, is that “there’s an ability to unite the country” in opposition to the militants. “But in order for that to work, more needs to be done to address the legitimate concerns of all communities, including the Sunnis and Kurds. Absent that, their incentives to take part aggressively” in fighting advancing forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria “is much less.”
There are few if any candidates to lead a new government who could win the support of all parties. Most of the likely contenders, including Nujaifi, leader of the largest Sunni political group; Shiite politician Ayad Allawi, who headed a multi-ethnic coalition in the last election; and Shiite politician Ahmed Chalabi, are all well-known and well-worn figures on the Iraqi political stage and likely to be unacceptable to one or more groups.
Some of Iraq’s neighbors, meanwhile, including the Sunni monarchy in Saudi Arabia, have been pushing for the formation of an interim coalition government as the fastest way to remove Maliki .
During his eight years in office, Maliki has found himself increasingly isolated, with parties across the political spectrum accusing him of tightening his grip on power, sidelining political rivals and playing on the country’s sectarian divisions. Maliki and his former ally Moqtada al-Sadr have traded acrimonious public jibes in recent months, with Sadr describing Maliki as a dictator.
Ameer al-Kenani, a Sadrist parliamentarian, said his party is working alongside other Shiite parties to rally support behind alternative leaders ahead of the first session of Iraq’s newly elected parliament, which should be held within a fortnight according to the constitution.
“We have several names,” he said. “Maliki should not be part of the new government, he is the problem. He has been very aggressive with the Sunnis and also with the Kurds and other Shiites.”
Liz Sly and Loveday Morris contributed to this story from Baghdad.