Secretary of State John Kerry was in Baghdad on Monday to emphasize the United States’ message that military strikes won’t solve Iraq’s problems. The problem is that the political solution that President Barack Obama wants is going to take some time and a herculean effort to bring long-divided factions together.
Kerry said that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has vowed to form a new government by July 1. “The future of Iraq depends on decisions made in the next few days and weeks,” he said after meeting with Maliki for more than an hour in Baghdad. Kerry also met with Sunni and Shia leaders, who are key to forming an inclusive government.
But time isn’t exactly on Iraq’s side.
Iraq held parliamentary elections on April 30. The election results were certified about a week ago, a senior State Department official said, “which started a formal timeline of a process for forming a new government.”
That timeline requires the 328 newly elected members of parliament to choose a speaker by June 30. Then 30 days from that, it must choose a president and, within 15 days of that, a prime minister. “These timelines can be accelerated, but those are the deadlines, and we are encouraging them to act as swiftly as possible,” the official said in a briefing to reporters traveling with Kerry. Maliki won 92 seats in parliament, but needs 165 seats to form a government. “It remains to be seen whether or not that can happen,” the official said.
Maliki, who is Shia, has rejected international pleas to form an inclusive government – one that equally represents Sunnis, Shias and Kurds — since U.S. troops left in 2011. The Obama administration is hoping that the rapid advance of fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, who continue to advance towards Baghdad and occupy more areas in northern and western Iraq, will bring a sense of urgency to Iraq’s political leaders.
Obama, on Monday morning news shows in the U.S., said Iraq’s success depends on whether Maliki and other Iraqi leaders “are able to set aside their suspicions, their sectarian preferences for the good of the whole.”
“And we don’t know,” he said. “The one thing I do know is that if they fail to do that then no amount of military action by the United States can hold that country together.”
Each sect in Iraq wants better representation in Baghdad; it’s a longstanding feud among the Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. But even among the sects, there are differences of opinion on who should represent them. “I’m not going to go into names,” the official said. “And again, as the president said, it’s not up to us to choose who’s going to rule Iraq. This is a sovereign country and it’s up to them.”
“We are encouraging them to form a new government as soon as possible that’s an inclusive government. That’s not only us saying that; most of the leaders here are saying that. Grand Ayatollah Sistani said that just the other day. And so that is what we are looking for,” the official said.
There have been calls for Maliki to step aside. And while Kerry said the U.S. has not ruled out military strikes against ISIL, getting good intelligence on the ground is taking precious time that could render the military option obsolete if ISIL continues to gain a foothold in Iraq, especially along the lawless borders of Syria and Jordan where it’s reported that Shia-led Iraqi security forces are no longer fighting, choosing instead to protect Baghdad and other Shia-dominated areas in the east and south.
“We’re hearing from Sunni leaders across the board that they really want to do something about ISIL. They’re figuring out how to do it. A lot of them keep saying, ‘Well be stronger if there’s a new prime minister,’” the senior State Department official said. “Our answer to that is, ‘Look, you’ve got to pursue this in parallel. Political change comes through the government formation process, but it is not really responsible to let ISIL take over half the country, because once they do that you’re not going to be able to fight back.’