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.
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 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, 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.
"Prime Minister Maliki needs to engage in a multipronged approach to address the violence," Kaine, D-Va., said in a statement Tuesday. He said that includes political inclusion, a stronger crackdown on insurgents and government support for Iraq's Sunnis.
The State Department also urged 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.
Within al-Maliki's party, Deputy Prime Minister Hussain al-Shahristani, a Shiite, has been mentioned as a potential successor who could win some Sunni support. However, he oversees Iraq's energy industry and has fought with Kurds who are exporting their autonomous region's oil to Turkey without giving Baghdad a share of the profits. It is almost impossible in Iraq's fractured political makeup to become prime minister without at least some Kurdish support.
Another contender is Transportation Minister Hadi al-Amiri, a Shiite whom the U.S. has accused of helping Iran send planeloads of aid to Syria by flying through Iraqi airspace. Al-Amiri is a former commander of the Badr Brigades, a Shiite militia linked to Iran.
That al-Amiri is being touted as a potential successor strikes at the heart of a main U.S. concern: that al-Maliki's heir apparent might be worse than al-Maliki himself. But that may be a chance that Iraq has to take if it wants a cohesive and inclusive government that is strong enough to repel the insurgency.
"Given Maliki's chain of defeats at the hand of ISIL, it's time for Iraqis and Americans to consider alternatives," said former Ambassador to Iraq James F. Jeffrey, who was in Baghdad for more than two years after the 2010 elections and as U.S. troops withdrew.
Asked if al-Maliki's departure would create a power vacuum that could foster even more political infighting and instability, Jeffrey said: "That might well be. But at some point in a quasi-democratic system, there has to be accountability."
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