Isolated and discredited by humiliating military defeat, the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is likely to go soon, battered as he is by only slightly veiled demands for his immediate departure from powerful figures who once supported him. Within hours of President Obama making it implicitly clear that he wants a change of political leadership in Baghdad, the spiritual leader of the Iraqi Shia, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, was calling for a new and “effective” government that avoided the mistakes of the old. Nobody in Baghdad has any doubts that he wants the Prime Minister gone.
The longer Mr Maliki clings on to power the more likely it is that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) will win further victories and the Sunni community will remain united behind the al-Qa’ida-type group. Military sources in Baghdad say Mr Obama’s clear signal that the US was not going to use its air force to preserve the status quo in Baghdad has “damaged the army’s morale and self-confidence”. The army had been hoping somewhat unrealistically for a promise of air strikes to stem the advance of Isis and its allies.
There are other less diplomatic voices demanding that Mr Maliki, who has held office since 2006, should go. Umm Nahid, a resident of Ramadi, the capital of the vast and overwhelmingly Sunni Anbar province, told The Independent that the city had been mostly taken by the Anbar Tribes Revolutionary Council, led by Hatem Suleiman. Suleiman says he is preventing Isis advancing down the road towards Baghdad, but will stop doing this unless the Iraqi army fully withdraws from Ramadi, all prisoners are released (some 100,000 are believed to be in jail) and, above all, “Maliki is removed from power”.
His threat strikingly underlines the extent to which Mr Maliki has become a hate figure for the five or six million-strong Iraqi Sunni community. Hostility to the Prime Minister as responsible for their oppression has enabled Isis fanatics to collaborate with disparate Sunni armed groups whom they were previously fighting. For the Sunni, hatred and fear of Mr Maliki is a powerful uniting force just as detestation of Saddam Hussein used to enable the Shia and Kurds to plaster over their differences.
Mr Maliki does not see it that way and has rejected calls for his departure as dictated by outside powers, but Iraqi politicians who have always opposed him now think they can bring him down. By 30 June at the latest the Iraqi parliament must meet to choose a new speaker, president and prime minister. It appears that Mr Maliki, despite having done well in the 30 April parliamentary election, does not have the votes to survive.
As a second line of defence, he will try to ensure that somebody from within his own State of Law coalition and close to him, like his former chief of staff Tariq Najim, takes over. He would try to remain a power in the background and at worst to shield his family – and his rule has become very much that of his extended family – from prosecution, much as Boris Yeltsin cut a deal when Vladimir Putin took over as Russian leader in 1999.
These manoeuvres seem petty and wholly self-serving when Isis fighters are less than an hour’s drive from Baghdad. The capital itself could erupt at any moment when Isis decides to activate its cells in the Sunni enclaves. In the last few days, military sources say they discovered such an Isis cell in the largely Shia area of Karada purporting to be a charitable organisation, but in practice under the control of a former general from Saddam’s time, that was monitoring the city’s defences.
The danger of Baghdad falling makes it damaging to bargain at any length about the future leadership of Iraq. “People might accept Tariq Najim because they are so desperate to get Maliki out,” said one observer. Other candidates like Iyad Allawi, Ahmed Chalabi and several others all have supporters but prolonged wrangling would make it difficult to re-energise and re-organise the army.
There is another player in the struggle over the Iraqi leadership whose views may be decisive. This is Iran and Mr Maliki in recent years has been very much Iran’s man. It was the Iranians who were finally responsible for him staying in power after the 2010 election. Iraqi politicians familiar with the Iranian leadership say that it is uncertain what to do and, at least until recently, Iran’s supreme spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei, has wanted to maintain support for Mr Maliki. It may be the Iranians want to exact a price from the US for abandoning him, but the Iranians will not want Baghdad to fall or to have to send Iranian troops to prevent this happening.
A problem in the present crisis is that Iraqi political leaders may be relying too much on the US or Iran to bail them out. “They like to believe that the Americans have a magic wand and the Iranians will always stick with them regardless,” says Ghassan al-Attiyah, Iraqi political scientist and activist. “The Americans may be willing to fight Isis but they do not want to be dragged into a sectarian war against the Sunni.”
Like Macbeth in his last days, Mr Maliki stands at bay as his enemies corner him at last and his former friends desert him. He is said to be angry with the Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari for not defending the government against accusations of sectarianism by Saudi Arabia at a meeting of foreign ministers this week. “But how could Zebari have defended Maliki?” asked an observer in Baghdad. “No defence is possible.”