The U.S. administration is indicating it wants Iraq's political parties to form a new government without Mr. Maliki as he tries to assemble a ruling coalition following elections this past April, U.S. officials say.
Such a new government, U.S., officials say, would include the country's Sunni and Kurdish communities and could help to stem Sunni support for the al Qaeda offshoot, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, that has seized control of Iraqi cities over the past two weeks. That, the officials argue, would help to unify the country and reverse its slide into sectarian division.
On Wednesday, Iraq stepped up efforts on several fronts to blunt the insurgency's progress, deploying counterterrorism units and helicopter gunships to battle them for control of the country's main oil refinery, in Beiji.
A growing number of U.S. lawmakers and Arab allies, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are pressing the White House to pull its support for Mr. Maliki. Some of them are pushing for change in exchange for providing their help in stabilizing Iraq, say U.S. and Arab diplomats.
The chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) told a congressional hearing Wednesday: "The Maliki government, candidly, has got to go if you want any reconciliation."
Senior administration officials have become increasingly critical of Mr. Maliki in their public statements and question whether he is committed to mending ties with Sunnis.
"There's no question that not enough has been done by the government, including the prime minister, to govern inclusively, and that that has contributed to the situation and the crisis that we have today in Iraq," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday. "The Iraqi people will have to decide the makeup of the next coalition government and who is the prime minister," he added. "Whether it's the current prime minister or another leader, we will aggressively attempt to impress upon that leader the absolute necessity of rejecting sectarian governance."
The Obama administration has for years warned Mr. Maliki's Shiite-dominant government to be more inclusive and less punitive against the minority Sunnis at the risk of further alienating them.
Mr. Maliki has largely ignored that advice over the past five years, U.S. and Arab officials say, jailing popular Sunni protest leaders, blocking even other Shiite blocs from sharing power and taking most key cabinet positions in government for himself.
This week, as pressure rose from the U.S. and other allies to work toward a representative government for Iraq, Mr. Maliki participated in a unity meeting with top Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish leaders. The result wasn't hopeful, U.S. and Arab officials say.
"We believe that Maliki's sectarianism and exclusion of Sunnis has led to the insurgency we are seeing," said a senior Arab official. "He unfortunately managed to unite ISIS with the former Baathists and Saddam supporters."
President Barack Obama and his national security aides are in deliberations over the creation of a new strategy for stabilizing Iraq, with a clear road map expected in the coming days.
Mr. Obama has discussed the possibility of using air power and drone strikes to weaken ISIS, say U.S. officials. But he has been particularly focused on developing a political process to heal the widening rift between Iraq's Shiite and Sunni communities that officials see as feeding the support for ISIS's insurgency in western Iraq.
Mr. Obama met Wednesday with the top Republican and Democratic members of the House and Senate to update them on administration plans.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), the chamber's minority leader, issued a statement afterward, criticizing Mr. Obama's past policies on Iraq and saying it was important to apply the experience to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in two years.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), the House Democratic leader, said Mr. Obama didn't need any further legislative authority to pursue options in Iraq. But officials said Mr. Obama told the congressional leaders he would continue to consult with them.
Earlier Wednesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cautioned senators at a hearing against expecting quick U.S. military strikes, because of the difficulty of developing targets. "It's not as easy as looking at an iPhone video of a convoy and then immediately striking it," said Gen. Dempsey.
To support the administration approach, Secretary of State John Kerry and his aides have consulted with Iraq's neighbors—particularly Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran—to find a formula to create a more inclusive government in Baghdad.
The State Department's point man on Iraq, Deputy Assistant Secretary Brett McGurk, has concurrently been meeting with Iraqi politicians and religious leaders in Baghdad to promote this political process, say U.S. officials.
The State Department wouldn't say if the Obama administration was specifically discussing the issue of removing Mr. Maliki during these talks. But Arab diplomats and policy advisors who have talked with the White House in recent days said it was clear the administration was "casting about for somebody better" than Mr. Maliki.
Mr. Kerry was even more pointed in his criticism of Mr. Maliki on Monday, arguing his removal could help stabilize Iraq's sectarian divide.
"If there is a clear successor, if the results of the election are respected, if people come together with the cohesiveness necessary to build a legitimate government that puts the reforms in place that people want, that might wind up being very salutatory," he told Yahoo News.
Mr. Maliki's State of Law Party won a plurality of seats, 94 out of 350, in Iraq's parliamentary elections. The country is waiting for Iraq's Supreme Court to ratify the results, after which the parliamentary speaker will call on the leadership of Mr. Maliki's party to form a new government.
Mr. Maliki is still viewed as in a strong position to retain his post. In fact, many Shiite leaders have rallied behind the Iraqi prime minister in the wake of the ISIS gaining control of the cities of Mosul, Tal Afar and Tikrit in recent days and launching an offensive on Baghdad.
Still, the formation of governments in Iraq has seen significant horse-trading—and the involvement of American, Iranian and Arab diplomats—since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The Shiite politician Ayad Allawi's political party won the most seats in 2010. But he failed to form a government after some Shiite and Kurdish parties backed Mr. Maliki.
Current and former U.S. officials said Iran will be crucial a player in efforts to form a new government in Baghdad and potentially remove Mr. Maliki, and will push for any new government to be friendly to its interests.
Tehran and Washington are Iraq's most important diplomatic, economic and military partners. And both the U.S. and Iran have pledged in recent days to support the Iraqi government in its fight against the ISIS.
Former U.S. officials said both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations communicated regularly with Iranian diplomats in Baghdad during the political deliberation in 2006 and 2010 that previously elected Mr. Maliki. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns discussed Iraq's political reform process with Iranian officials on Monday in Vienna, according to the State Department.
"Iran can play a positive role," said Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2005 to 2007. "Sometimes, on a tactical level, there can be an opportunity for cooperation. It's happened in the past."
The sequencing of the U.S.'s deliberations with Iraq and Iran will be crucial in determining whether progress can be made in driving ISIS out of the territories it's already claimed, according current and former U.S. officials.
Mr. Obama has signaled that he's going to hold back on launching any major military operations inside Iraq until he get assurances from the Iraqi government that it will take meaningful steps to reach out to its Sunni community.
But there are concerns within the administration that ISIS could continue to make military gains as Mr. Maliki and other Iraqi politicians jostle for power in Baghdad.
"The question is if the U.S. needs to do something [militarily] while waiting for a political settlement," said Mr. Khalilzad.
—Michael R. Crittenden, Jeffrey Sparshott, Ellen Knickmeyer and Dion Nissenbaum contributed to this article.
source: wsj.com By JAY SOLOMON and CAROL E. LEE