U.S. officials are reportedly putting a stark choice before Nouri al Maliki, Iraq’s embattled Prime Minister: the U.S. will carry out airstrikes against terrorist targets, but only if he resigns.
According to a report in the Independent, Maliki can step down, thus sacrificing his own grip on power to stanch the spread of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), a Sunni extremist group, with American help. Or he could stay in power, preserving his hold as the country’s pro-Shi’ite strongman but precluding the possibility of game-changing U.S. military assistance.
The Wall Street Journal hasn’t uncovered such an explicit quid pro quo. But it is reporting that the Obama administration is “signaling that it wants a new government in Iraq without Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki,” as well as “Iraq’s political parties to form a new government without Mr. Maliki as he tries to assemble a ruling coalition following elections this past April.”
And it’s not just a strong current within the administration that wants him gone, according to the Journal. So do a couple of important U.S.’s allies in the region, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The U.S.’s request for Maliki to step down isn’t quite as explicit as Obama’s demands for Bashar al-Assad or Hosni Mubarak’s resignations amidst protests in Syria and Egypt, respectively. And there’s a precedent for the Obama administration using a change in leadership as an incentive for increased U.S. assistance. Last month, the administration made a $30 million elections-related grant to the Democratic Republic of the Congo contingent upon the country’s despotic and long-serving president Joseph Kabila adhering to constitutional term limits and not contesting the next round of elections.
This is different. The administration seems to be pushing for a change in leadership in Iraq in the midst of a full-bore national crisis. This is happening amidst reports that the U.S. is perhaps coordinating policy with Iran, the country whose meddling in Iraqi internal politics is directly responsible for Maliki’s current position of power.
The Obama administration is faced with an unpalatable set of options. Pushing for Maliki’s resignation could only entrench him even deeper, but so could airstrikes on ISIS targets. Given Obama’s 2008 campaign promises, even limited ground operations or several hundred special forces could be a tough sell.
Pushing for Maliki’s resignation and political reform could seem like the safest among a bad set of choices.
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