BAGHDAD – Prominent Shiite leaders pushed Thursday for the removal of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as parliament prepared to start work next week on putting together a new government, under intense U.S. pressure to rapidly form a united front against an unrelenting Sunni insurgent onslaught.
Increasingly, the Shiite al-Maliki’s former allies believe he cannot lead an inclusive government that can draw minority Sunnis away from support for the fighters who have swept over a large swath of Iraq as they head toward the capital, Baghdad.
In a further sign of Iraq’s unraveling along sectarian lines, a bombing Thursday killed 12 people in a Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad that houses a revered shrine, and police found the bullet-riddled bodies of eight Sunnis south of the capital.
Most crucially, though, backing for al-Maliki is weakening with his most important ally, neighboring Iran.
A senior Iranian general who met with Shiite politicians in Iraq during a 10-day visit this month returned home with a list of potential prime minister candidates for Iran’s leadership to consider, several senior Iraqi Shiite politicians who have knowledge of the general’s meetings told The Associated Press.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wants al-Maliki to remain in his post, at least for now, the politicians said; but Iran’s moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, believes al-Maliki must go or else Iraq will fragment.
The United States and its allies are pushing for the creation of a government that can draw support among Iraq’s Sunni minority, which has been alienated by al-Maliki.
U.S Secretary of State John Kerry met Thursday in Paris with foreign ministers of America’s Sunni allies to consider how to confront the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the al-Qaida breakaway group leading the Sunni insurgent offensive.
The Arab diplomats did not commit to sending any military assistance to Baghdad, as the U.S. is doing. The Pentagon said Thursday that four teams of Army special forces have arrived in Baghdad, bringing the number of American troops there to 90 out of the 300 promised.
The Americans will advise and assist Iraqi forces.