WASHINGTON (AP) — As a Sunni Muslim insurgency gains ground in Iraq, the United States is pondering whether the violent march could be slowed with new leadership in Baghdad after years of divisive policies pushed by the Shiite prime minister.
But with no obvious replacement for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — and no apparent intent on his part to step down — Washington is largely resigned to continue working with him for a third term as Iraq's premier.
"He's obviously not been a good prime minister," Sen. Bob Corker, top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Wednesday at a nomination hearing for the next U.S. ambassador to Iraq. "He has not done a good job of reaching out to the Sunni population, which has caused them to be more receptive to al-Qaida efforts."
Since the start of this year, insurgents with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have taken over several Sunni cities in the country's western Anbar province, including Fallujah, the site of two of the bloodiest battles of the eight-year war that ended in 2011 when U.S. troops left. The insurgency, which has been inspired by al-Qaida, continued its rampage Tuesday by seizing most of the northern city of Mosul in a shocking defeat for al-Maliki's security forces that raises new questions about his ability to protect Iraq.
Both Fallujah and Mosul were insurgent hotbeds at the height of Iraq's sectarian fighting over the last decade but were largely calmed by the time U.S. troops withdrew. Less than three years later, violence across Iraq has returned to levels comparable to the darkest days of the war.
Sen. Tim Kaine, chairman of a Senate Foreign Relations panel that oversees Mideast policy, earlier this week called the security situation in Iraq "extremely concerning" and said it is being exacerbated by Syria's civil war. Located about an hour east of the Syrian border, Mosul is a major way station for insurgents who routinely travel between the two countries and are seeding the Syrian war's violence in Baghdad and beyond.
On Wednesday, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, a Democrat, noted only tepid support for al-Maliki, both in Iraq and among U.S. officials. "I don't know whether or not he will actually be the prime minister again," Menendez said. "I guess by many accounts, he may very well ultimately put (together) the coalition necessary to do that."
The Obama administration is urging al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders to adopt more inclusive policies that, in turn, could help stabilize the country that has been traumatized by war, sanctions, dictators and sectarian tensions for more than 30 years.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest cited "a responsibility on the part of the Iraqi leaders to step up to the plate here" to preserve security. "That includes Prime Minister Maliki to do more to address the unresolved issues and better meet the needs of the Iraqi people," Earnest told reporters Tuesday.
Amid ongoing political bargaining in Baghdad, officials have been working to build a new power-sharing government after elections held in April. Al-Maliki's party won the most seats in the election but failed to capture a clear majority.
U.S. support for al-Maliki has waxed and waned since 2010, when he hung onto power though backroom deal-making after his State of Law party fell short of winning national elections. In 2011, days after the U.S. troop withdrawal, al-Maliki's government began a campaign of persecuting his longtime Sunni political opponents which, in turn, fueled Sunni anger in the Shiite-majority country.
It's far from certain that al-Maliki will reverse his heavy-handed tactics after eight years in control. While Washington would be most likely happy with a change in leadership, al-Maliki's political party won three times as many seats in the April parliamentary elections and has the right to remain in power.
Promises to host a unity summit later this month in the Sunni-controlled western Anbar province, and hire and pay more Sunni security militiamen, will serve as tests of al-Maliki's re-election pledges to foster an inclusive government. A senior Iraqi official on Tuesday said al-Maliki has no intention to stepping down, despite demands from Sunni and Shiite rivals to give up his post.
But al-Maliki's opponents have for years been unable or unwilling to work together to unseat the prime minister and, in the meantime, there are few people in Iraq's current government who could replace him.
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