Political shifts debated as armed U.S. drones fly.
BAGHDAD – As the first armed U.S. drones began flying over Iraq on Thursday, Shiite political leaders were locked in meetings to try to decide who should be the country’s next prime minister. For the first time, some of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s party members expressed doubt that he would be a viable candidate.
The consultations came against a backdrop of new mayhem from the Sunni-led insurgency that has upended the country and sharpened divisions over whether Al-Maliki, leader of the Shiite-dominated government for seven years, is capable of rescuing Iraq from its worst crisis since the U.S. military left in 2011.
Also, government forces claimed a rare victory over extremists ensconced at a university in the northern city of Tikrit, nine unidentified young men were found shot to death in a town south of Baghdad and a bomb killed at least 12 in a Shiite neighborhood of the capital.
And a Pentagon official in Washington said armed Predator drone patrols had started over Baghdad, an operation meant to offer added protection to the first U.S. military assessment teams that are fanning out in and around Baghdad to help the Iraqi military combat the insurgents.
The Predator drones, equipped with missiles, will augment about 40 unarmed reconnaissance flights that a combination of manned and unmanned U.S. aircraft are flying over Iraq each day.
Iraqiya, the state television network, said parliament would be convened Monday, within the post-election deadline set by the Iraqi Constitution. That set off an intense round of meetings among political factions in the hope of creating a consensus beforehand.
Western diplomats, as well as the powerful clerics of Iraq’s Shiite majority, have urged Al-Maliki’s interim government to expedite a new government, encouraging Al-Maliki to bring in Sunnis and Kurds to give it more credibility in its fight with Sunni extremists.
But he has so far refused to make any concessions demanded by Sunnis and Kurds, arousing alarm even among other Shiite groups. Some have tried to forge an alliance with Sunnis and Kurds to replace him.
That has appeared difficult. Al-Maliki’s State of Law party controls at least 92 of parliament’s 328 seats, with a variety of other parties having no more than 33 each. A 165-seat majority is needed to form a government.
Now, however, at least two members of Al-Maliki’s bloc have publicly expressed concern about al-Maliki’s viability for a third term.
“It will be very difficult for Maliki to keep his position,” said Abdul Karim al-Anzi, a former minister of national security and a prominent Shiite lawmaker in the State of Law coalition. “The situation is very complicated, and the talks are still far away from reaching a solution. The prime minister keeps saying he has the biggest bloc, but the others are not satisfied to see him keeping his position. Kurds as well as Sunnis are asking to replace him. The Sunnis and Kurds will have serious objections to him.”
The results of the April 30 election were certified by Iraq’s highest court on June 17, and the constitution requires parliament to convene within 15 days, so July 1, would be the latest possible date. The parliament selects a speaker, then elects a president, vice presidents and a prime minister in a process that may take months.