BAGHDAD (AP) — With the country in turmoil, rivals of Iraq's Shiite prime minister are mounting a campaign to force him out of office, with some angling for support from Western backers and regional heavyweights.
On Thursday, their effort received a massive boost from President Barack Obama.
The U.S. leader stopped short of calling for Nouri al-Maliki to resign, saying "it's not our job to choose Iraq's leaders." But, his carefully worded comments did all but that.
"Only leaders that can govern with an inclusive agenda are going to be able to truly bring the Iraqi people together and help them through this crisis," Obama declared at the White House.
"We've said publicly, that whether he (al-Maliki) is prime minister or any other leader aspires to lead the country, that there has to be an agenda in which Sunni, Shiite and Kurd all feel that they have the opportunity to advance their interest through the political process," the president said.
An "inclusive agenda" has not been high on the priorities of al-Maliki, whose credibility as an able leader suffered a serious setback when Sunni militants of the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant launched a lightning offensive last week that swallowed up a large chunk of northern Iraq, together with the nation's second city, Mosul.
Al-Maliki, who rose from relative obscurity to office in 2006, when Iraq's sectarian bloodletting began to spiral out of control, quickly became known for a tough hand, working in alliance with American forces in the country since the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Over the years that followed, Sunni tribes backed by the Americans rose up to fight al-Qaida-linked militants, while al-Maliki showed a readiness to rein in Shiite militiamen — and by 2008, the violence had eased.
Since the withdrawal of American forces in late 2011, however, it has swelled again, stoked in part by al-Maliki himself.
The Iraqi leader's moves last year to crush protests by Sunnis complaining of discrimination under his Shiite-led government sparked a new wave of violence by militants, who took over the city of Fallujah in the western, Sunni-dominated province of Anbar and parts of the provincial capital Ramadi. Iraqi army and police forces battling them for months have been unable to take most areas back.
At the same time, many Iraqis complain of government corruption, the failure to rebuild the economy and too close ties with mostly Shiite Iran, a non-Arab nation that Sunni Arab states, including powerhouse Saudi Arabia, see as a threat to regional stability.
Shiite politicians familiar with the secretive efforts to remove al-Maliki said two names mentioned as possible replacements are former vice president Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a French-educated economist who is also a Shiite, and Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who served as Iraq's first prime minister after Saddam's ouster.
Al-Mahdi belongs to a moderate Shiite party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which has close links with Iran.
Also lobbying for the job is Ahmad Chalabi, a Shiite lawmaker who recently joined the Supreme Council and was once a favorite by Washington to lead Iraq a decade ago. Another Shiite from the Supreme Council who is trying to land the job is Bayan Jabr, a former finance and interior minister under al-Maliki's tenure, according to the politicians, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
An Iraqi Shiite lawmaker, Hakim al-Zamili, said he was aware of a meeting in recent days between Iraqi political leaders and U.S. officials over the issue of al-Maliki's future, though he did not know who attended the meeting.
Al-Zamili belongs to a political bloc loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has publicly demanded that al-Maliki be replaced. But, he said, efforts to replace al-Maliki should come only after Iraqi security forces beat back the Sunni militants.
"My view is that safeguarding Iraq is now our top priority," al-Zamili said. "We will settle the accounts later."
Mohammed al-Khaldi, a top aide to outgoing Sunni speaker of parliament, Osama al-Nujaifi, said: "We have asked the Americans, Britain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran to work toward denying al-Maliki a new term. The Shiite bloc must find a replacement for him."
Besides the Sunnis and Shiites, al-Maliki's former Kurdish allies have also been clamoring to deny him a third term in office, charging that he has excluded them from a decision-making circle of close confidants and is meddling in the affairs of their self-rule enclave in the north.
"We wanted him to go, but after what happened last week, we want it even more," said Mahmoud Othman, a veteran Kurdish politician.
Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish region, put the case against al-Maliki much more emphatically.
Without mentioning the prime minister by name, he said al-Maliki had discarded his counsel and he alone now "takes direct responsibility for what happened to Iraq."
Al-Maliki, who has long faced criticism for not making his government more inclusive, has been adopting conciliatory language in recent days toward Sunnis and Kurds. He said the militant threat affects all Iraqis, regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliation, and called on Iraqis to drop all "Sunnis and Shiites" talk. The ongoing crisis, al-Maliki said, had made Iraqis rediscover "national unity."
The pro-al-Maliki media also made a show of a meeting Tuesday night between the Iraqi leader and Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish political leaders.
A joint statement issued after the meeting said they agreed to set aside differences and focus on "national priorities" and warned against rhetoric that could potentially stoke sectarian tensions. In a reference to street parades by armed Shiite militias, it also condemned any armed displays not authorized by the government.
Despite the conciliatory words, al-Maliki is not known to have made any concrete offers to bridge differences with the Sunnis, the Kurds or even his fellow Shiites.
Rather than build bridges of national unity, al-Maliki has over the past week given efforts to mobilize against the Islamic State's militants a distinctly sectarian slant. He brought in Iran's most powerful general, Ghasem Soleiman of the secretive Quds Force, to help organize the war effort, and declared that Shiite volunteers who joined the security forces were the backbone of Iraq's future army and would be paid salaries equivalent to what their counterparts in the army and police make.
Al-Maliki has also accorded the Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen a level of legitimacy, allowing them to fight along army and security forces and turning a blind eye to their muscle flexing on the streets of Baghdad and other cities. These militias fought against U.S. forces in Iraq and joined the Syrian civil war on the side of President Bashar Assad's regime against Sunni rebels.
Perhaps unwittingly, a call to arms by the Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite cleric, has given the fight against the Islamic State militants the feel of a religious war between Shiites and Sunnis. A recluse who does not give media interviews, al-Sistani routinely addresses all Iraqis in his edicts, but they in effect target only Shiites, who wait on his every word.
Al-Maliki insists that Sunnis were among the volunteers, but he never produced any evidence to back the claim. And, although he declares himself fed up with "Shiites and Sunnis" talk, the volunteers he spoke to earlier this week south of Baghdad chanted Shiite slogans, while Shiite police and army troops continued to fly Shiite banners at checkpoints and posts.
Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad and Lara Jakes and Julie Pace in Washington contributed to this report.