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Will an alternative to prime minister Maliki emerge in Iraq?

June 27, 2014 at 6:08 PM EST
Iraq’s top Shiite cleric ramped up pressure on politicians to agree on the nation’s next prime minister by Tuesday. Iraq’s current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, continues to lose the confidence of former allies in the fight against ISIL insurgents. Judy Woodruff talks to Rob Nordland of the New York Times about the struggles to unite politically and what role U.S. is playing.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Earlier today, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric stepped up pressure on politicians to agree on the Iraq’s next prime minister by Tuesday, as Nouri al-Maliki continues to lose the confidence of former allies in the fight against ISIL militants.

Rod Nordland has been reporting on the political developments in Baghdad for The New York Times. I spoke with him a short time ago.

Rod Nordland, thank you for joining us.

So, we just heard about the tense atmosphere among the population there. Give us a sense of the political state of play. It’s just a few days until the country has to choose its leaders. Is anyone emerging as an alternative to Maliki?

ROD NORDLAND, The New York Times: I think a lot of people feel on many — from many different sides of the political parties here that they are all kind of marching toward a cliff and they’re going to go straight over it, and not be able to agree on a leader to replace Maliki, and not being able to agree on Maliki in some kind of formulation with — joined with Sunnis and Kurds that would bring the country together again to fight this threat from the extremists.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You wrote today, however, that even some members of Maliki’s own party are saying he shouldn’t continue in office.

ROD NORDLAND: That’s right. And that’s — that’s new.

I mean, he does have the biggest number of seats from the election, 92. But it sounds like some of them may defect. But, still, the next largest party has 33 seats. And they would have to join with a lot of other disparate groups, both Sunnis and Shias and Kurds, in order to put together a majority to defeat Mr. Maliki.

And a lot of people don’t think that can be done. And they particularly don’t think it can be done in the next couple days, which is what the — certainly the Shia religious leaders have been pushing them to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What role, Rod, is the United States playing in all of this? We know Secretary Kerry has been in the region for a number of days. He has spent time in the Kurdish part of Iraq. How is that being seen?

ROD NORDLAND: I think he’s been doing pretty much what Ayatollah Sistani has been doing, which is signaling in as polite a way as possible that the United States, like the marja, the Shiite leadership, would like to see Maliki go, without actually saying so.

But in his actions and even in the statement of President Obama saying that they need a government of unity, and Mr. Maliki certainly hasn’t been able to form one over these past years, I think they’re making it clear that they want to see an alternative to him, and pushing very hard for that, because they think that’s the only way to get a government that might possibly bring Sunnis and Kurds back into the fold.

As for his trip to Kurdistan and his meeting with Mr. Barzani, that’s alarmed a lot of Shia leaders here and certainly Mr. Maliki’s government, because it gave a kind of approval to what the Kurds have done, just by Mr. Kerry’s presence there. And Mr. Barzani, the Kurdish leader, took advantage of that opportunity to repeat his demands for an independent Kurdistan and for them to hold on to the oil-rich city of Kirkuk that they have taken.

So, that’s — that’s upset a lot of people here. And I think, increasingly, there’s — there’s a feeling that Kurdistan and Kirkuk especially are lost and the country’s that much closer to dismemberment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about the Iraqi army? Is it seen as any better equipped to hold off the advance by the ISIL forces?

ROD NORDLAND: I don’t think so.

I don’t think anybody’s seen a dramatic change. Most people are putting their hopes in these tens of thousands of Shiite, mostly Shiite volunteers who have joined in response to a call from the Shiite leadership to buck up the army.

But they’re untrained, unproven. The Iraqi army has had very little success in the field against extremist insurgents, who are far, far less numerous than the army, as far less well-equipped. It’s really a matter of training, morale, esprit de corps.

It’s also a big problem with corruption. There’s been a lot of corruption in the military that undermined the confidence of the soldiers and the confidence of the public in the army.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, what about the American military advisers who are now on the ground there? We’re also reading about some armed drone flights that the U.S. has begun over Iraq. What are you seeing about both of these?

ROD NORDLAND: Well, we haven’t really heard much from them, aside from the announcement that 180 of them — of the advisers are here and they have begun armed drone missions over Iraq.

There’s already been drone missions and now they’re flying ones that have missiles, but — and they’re saying that’s to provide protection for advisers as they fan out. But, at this stage, I think that’s more likely to be symbolic, a symbolic show of support for the government here.

I would think that they would be very careful about targeting and take their time to make sure they have assets on the ground that can direct the targeting and make sure they don’t make a — what could be in this situation a really, really disastrous mistake, if they were to, say, as they have done so many times in the past, hit a funeral or a wedding or a group of civilians in a Sunni area.

That would just play into the hands of the extremists. And so I think it will be a while before we see any definitive action from drones or airstrikes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rod Nordland, we thank you very much for talking with us again.

ROD NORDLAND: Pleasure.