Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s days in office may be numbered, his reputation battered by a militant offensive and increasingly vocal charges of sectarianism as deputies begin choosing a new government.
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 due to open its first session on 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.
“There are clearly talks going on,” the diplomat said, adding: “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.
— Slim chance —
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 spectre 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 cleric 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 frontrunner 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 Ahmed Chalabi are all being touted alongside backroom power brokers such as Maliki’s current chief of staff Tareq Najim.
But MPs interviewed by AFP from across the political and communal spectrum said that even if the premier were booted from power, choosing a new one could take a month or more.
— Sunni decline —
A decline in the proportion of Sunni Arab MPs — a product of a fracturing of Sunni parties, reported threats against voters, the closure of numerous polling stations in Sunni areas and other factors — has also meant that Shiite deputies form the majority in parliament.
Although Iraq’s various communities discussed potential premier candidates after previous polls, many Sunni MPs now believe their opinion matters little.
“This is a fact we have to deal with,” said Qassem Fahdawi, a newly-elected MP and the former governor of the western desert province of Anbar.
“We have no influence about this matter. Even if we have an opinion against any person, it will not work.”
Maliki’s supporters insist he is still the man to lead the country and warned that — with Iraq mired in what US 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.”