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Who holds the cards to Iraq’s political future?

June 20, 2014 at 6:14 PM EDT
Pressure is mounting for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as ISIL advances toward that nation’s capital. Judy Woodruff talks to Rod Nordland of The New York Times from Baghdad about the future of Iraq’s government and reaction to President Obama’s announcement that he’s sending up to 300 military advisors to Iraq.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And now to the future of Iraq’s government, its leader, and the reaction on the ground to President Obama’s decision to send hundreds of military advisers to the country.

The New York Times’ Rod Nordland has been reporting on all these fronts from Baghdad. I spoke to him earlier this afternoon.

Rod Nordland, welcome to the program.

A lot going on there, in particular this statement by the cleric, the grand ayatollah, calling on the country’s political parties to quickly come together to form a government.

ROD NORDLAND, The New York Times: I think people are reading more into that statement than is actually there, but that certainly is the sentiment among a lot of political leaders here, even people that were allies of Mr. Maliki, say, a year ago or even less.

And there are quite a few other politicians who think there is actually a chance of putting together a coalition that could unseat him. And they feel emboldened now, because they see support from a lot of quarters, including particularly the Americans and President Obama with his remarks last night, which were hardly very supportive of the current prime minister.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, just how much support is there right now for making a change in government?

ROD NORDLAND: Well, Maliki does have his supporters. He was the single biggest vote-getter. Something like 750,000 people voted for him, and he has more seats than any other single bloc or party.

But he doesn’t have enough seats to make government on his own. And he has almost zero support from Sunnis and from Kurds. Probably, zero is a better figure. And, without that, without some support from other groups in the country, he’s not going to be able to effectively fight this insurgency.

And I think people increasingly are coming to that conclusion, that either he has to do something dramatic to show that he’s willing to include Sunnis and Kurds in his government, or he has to stand aside.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Has Maliki indicated any willingness to step aside?

ROD NORDLAND: Not at all.

And, in fact, he’s shown very little willingness to even recognize that he has a problem. We saw his reconciliation minister the other day, who flatly said there can be no reconciliation during the war. And, you know, that’s the kind of remark that just, you know, convinces the Sunnis, who are, after all, the breeding ground for these militants advancing toward Baghdad, that they just have no hope of working with this government.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what will the process be for making changes, for making a change at the top?

ROD NORDLAND: Well, there will be two weeks of deliberations among the parties, and if enough of them can get together to oppose Maliki, you know, they could be the ones who ultimately choose the new prime minister.

The first step is forming the parliament, and then the parliament would choose the president, prime minister, speaker of the house, and other officials. But, generally, what happens is, it’s kind of a package deal. And once parliament convenes, they have it all worked out. And those other parties, if enough of them get together, then they do have — among them, they have a pretty sound majority.

On the other hand, Maliki has a lot of the cards. He controls the government. He has the biggest single bloc, and he has a lot of support among his core constituency, the Shia.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rod Nordland, how much of a factor is Iran in all of this?  What are they saying to Maliki about what he should do?

ROD NORDLAND: Well, publicly, you know, the president of Iran, Rouhani, even said that he thinks Maliki needs to do more. He’s basically on the same — the same page as the Americans on that score.

And they have also said that they would be willing to work with the Americans. But it’s also clear to everybody, if insurgents got as far as Baghdad and even further south and threatened the Shia holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, the Iranians would probably be compelled — or feel compelled to step in.

And if they did that, that risks provoking other neighbors in the region, and even leading to a much wider regional war, which, at the end of the day, is what ISIS is all about. They want to see — the bigger the war, the better.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rod, finally, what is the reaction you’re hearing there to President Obama’s announcement that he’s sending 300 American military advisers to Iraq?

ROD NORDLAND: Well, I think, generally speaking, most Iraqis are pleased to hear that. They think that the United States does have to get involved again. And, certainly, people on Maliki’s side have wanted to see that for some time.

I think the Sunnis are a little bit more nervous about it. And they certainly — nobody wants to see another big American involvement. And I think they’re a bit suspicious of that. And then, on the radical Shia side, people like Muqtada al-Sadr’s followers have actually — some of them have actually said they would like to attack any American advisers who arrive.

So it’s kind of a mixed picture, as it always has been in this country when it comes to American involvement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very, very tough situation.

Rod Nordland with The New York Times, we thank you.

ROD NORDLAND: Pleasure.