Embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki sharply rejected calls for a caretaker government that would remove him from office, striking a defiant tone Wednesday in the face of U.S. pressure to share more political power and an offensive by Sunni Muslim insurgents that threatens his grip on the country.
With the Iraqi parliament due to meet next week to begin the weeks-long process of forming a new government, Maliki gave no indication in a televised address that he would step aside or make the substantial reforms that President Obama last week said were necessary to prevent Iraq from sliding back into sectarian war.
Maliki’s stance came as militants attacked one of the country’s largest air bases and a suicide bomber struck south of Baghdad, increasing the pressure on the Iraqi leadership to find common ground in confronting an unflagging insurgency led by an Al Qaeda splinter group.
As recently as last week, U.S. officials believed the threat that insurgents would reach Baghdad was receding. But the militants, including former army officers and Sunnis with ties to the Saddam Hussein government, have consolidated their hold on key towns, seized border crossings and targeted oil fields in what analysts describe as a methodical drive toward the capital.
Seeking to clarify Maliki’s statement, the prime minister’s office later said that he remained “open to forming a coalition government” that includes all Iraqi religious and ethnic groups. But in his address he showed little appetite for compromise, criticizing rival parties for undermining his Shiite Muslim-dominated government during the crisis.
“Today, in a difficult situation, we have not heard from our partners even one word of support or help,” Maliki said. He said proponents of a caretaker administration were “rebels against the constitution” who threatened the country just as much as the Sunni insurgents who have taken over much of northern and western Iraq.
He was referring to Sunni lawmakers, who have called for him to cede power when a new government is formed this summer, and to ethnic Kurds, whose leader this week signaled that his people might seek to form an independent state.
Maliki’s rivals have called for a “national salvation government” that would discard the results of April parliamentary elections — in which his Shiite coalition won a plurality, though still less than a third of the seats — and form an interim administration to demonstrate solidarity against the Sunni militants. The two-term prime minister is accused of fostering sectarian divisions in the government and security forces, which have largely retreated when confronted by the well-armed militants.
“Maliki’s military solution isn’t enough to solve all the problems we face,” said Qais Shater, a Sunni lawmaker from the Iraqiya bloc. “A salvation government is the answer.”
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who met with Maliki in Baghdad on Monday, said the United States would be watching to see whether he fulfills his pledges to form an inclusive government. Obama has ordered up to 300 U.S. military advisors to Iraq to help security forces fend off the insurgency — the first 90 arrived this week — but said that only a political resolution could forestall a return to civil war.
Violence edged closer to Baghdad as insurgents led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, reportedly launched attacks on a major air base at Balad, about 50 miles north of Baghdad. The former U.S. military installation houses a range of Iraqi military hardware including surveillance planes and pickup trucks equipped with machine guns.
The air base is also one of three key military installations, including Taji, 12 miles north of Baghdad, and the Baghdad international airport, that provide security for the Iraqi capital, which is slowly being squeezed by insurgent advances from the north and west.
“Certainly there’s military materiel inside Balad that, if the base is overrun, could increase ISIS’s firepower very near to the capital,” said Jessica D. Lewis, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer in Iraq who is research director at the Institute for the Study of War. “But for me the bigger consideration is making Balad ineffective” in protecting Baghdad.
A senior U.S. intelligence official who briefed reporters Tuesday said the insurgency “continues to threaten the air base … as it moves south toward Baghdad.”
Underscoring the threat, a suicide bomber attacked a crowded market at sunset in the predominantly Shiite town of Mahmoudiya, 20 miles south of Baghdad, in the type of strike usually attributed to Sunni insurgents. Moments after the bomb went off, residents said, two or three mortar rounds struck the market area in a sign that the attackers had taken up positions not far from the town center, part of the notorious “Triangle of Death” that saw some of the bloodiest fighting during last decade’s civil war.
At least 13 people were killed, according to news agencies. Bassim Mohammed, a teacher, was at a nearby hospital and saw a wave of ambulances arrive with casualties.
“I wonder when this targeting of civilians will stop,” Mohammed said. “Is Iraqi blood this cheap?”
In a sign that the crisis was spreading to neighboring countries, officials in western Iraq’s Anbar province, which is largely in the hands of the Sunni militants, said Syrian warplanes bombed a site on the Iraqi-Syrian border near Qaim, an Iraqi town that fell to insurgents over the weekend. Syria’s official Syrian Arab News Agency denied the reports, but Iraqi and U.S. officials were treating them as credible in part because ISIS fighters are also seeking to overthrow President Bashar Assad’s government in Damascus.
Kerry, speaking at a North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting in Brussels, said the Syrian operation and recent disclosures of Iranian military support for Maliki risk widening the crisis into a regional sectarian war.
“We’ve made it clear to everyone in the region that we don’t need anything to take place that might exacerbate the sectarian divisions that are already at a heightened level of tension,” Kerry said.
Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut and special correspondent Hussein Kadhim in Baghdad contributed to this report.For more news from Iraq, follow @SBengali on Twitter