After the shocking announcement last evening that Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq and ally to the United States, had begun mobilizing Shiite militias to strategic power sites across Baghdad, all in an apparent effort to fend off his impending outster by Iraq's president Fouad Massoum, Maliki now finds himself today removed from his post by the president, after a series of frantic calls from U.S. President Barak Obama's administration to many key Iraqi politicians. Today, as in the past four days, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was at the center of a coalition-building exercise, seeking to help Iraq find a suitable replacement for Maliki, the sometimes stubborn and divisive, elected prime minister of Iraq, who of recent weeks has struggled to hold together a fracturing army. Massoum selected Haider al-Abadi, a longtime ally of Maliki, to be nominated as the country's new prime minister, and with the announcement, the U.S. was signaling privately that it was prepared to become significantly more engaged in confronting jihadists calling themselves Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS). The announcement left western and gulf states disappointed that Maliki's replacement was also Shia, and throwing into question continued government support from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other significant predominantly Sunni countries for Iraq's current struggle with al-Qaeda In Iraq's more sinister and deadly replacement.
When Islamic State fighters pored into northern Iraq from Syria, in their drive to establish an Islamic caliphate, or government which is completely religious based, across several of the Mideast states, the Sunni soldiers attached to Iraq's army deserted not only their colleagues, but hundreds of millions of dollars of high-tech and sophisticated U.S. military hardware, some of which is now finding itself crossing the border back into Syria. While Islamic State forces continue to control many pieces of U.S. equipment, their lack of familiarity with the operation of all systems associated with the military equipment that they have seized, unlike the seasoned U.S. pilots who are now on the attack, is leading to high accuracy in the air strikes that U.S. forces are carrying out, and to a continued degradation of IS capability.
Maliki has become a scapegoat in the latest military fallout from the pullout of American ground forces from Iraq; a campaign pledge from President Obama. Once the U.S. had left Iraq, most foreign observers and Iraqis themselves believed that Maliki would work towards extending a more conciliatory hand towards both the Sunnis in the south, and the Kurds in the north. Instead, Maliki sought to consolidate power further into the hands of the Shiites, leading to more sectarian violence, which has plagued Iraq since Maliki began his second term as P.M. Sunnis, while wanting to believe that having a different Shiite P.M. could possibly begin to bring all three factions together, allowing the country to put up a more unified front against Islamic State, Kurdish forces in the north have begun to push back on their own; giving all of the credit for the change in momentum to intelligence sharing between the U.S. and Kurdish military commanders, as well as the air strikes, which have been hitting Islamic State controlled fighters and equipment with pinpoint and deadly accuracy.
For the moment, Abadi has yet to form a governing coalition, leading to Maliki supporters claiming that a military coup was the next major event that could happen in Baghdad. Iraq's parliament has not had a ruling coalition, which can move legislation forward, since Maliki's reelection in 2010. Maliki appears to believe that Abadi will also not be capable of creating a governing majority, and, for the moment, is showing no signs of relinquishing the keys to the prime minister's offices. On the contrary, Maliki has begun to ensure that communications links between senior Iraqi military commanders and his office remain not only intact, but completely secure from interference, or instruction, by President Massoum or parliament.
U.S. warplanes attacked a convoy of Islamic State vehicles and positions on Sunday, leading to a reversal of fortunes for the dangerous and radical Islamic fundamentalists, who have already been accused of conducting thousands of summary executions as well as other crimes against humanity, with Kurdish Peshmerga forces taking back control of positions set up by Islamic State in the district of Makhmur, as well as in Gwair, a nearby village. Islamic State fighters had overrun the two areas as they began to push towards Irbil, where U.S. military forces were well established, and entrenched. U.S. military commanders are finding that the same level of cooperation exists today with the Kurds as once was displayed during the Kurdish uprising against former Iraq leader and dictator Saddam Hussein.
As Islamic State fighters have sought to bring heavy artillery into the mix as they try to move closer towards Irbil, they are being met with fierce resistance, most notably the laser-guided weapons now hammering the American weapons in Islamic State hands, left behind by fleeing Iraqi forces. In some very good news for the Kurdistan autonomous region of Iraq, the Obama administration has announced that it is to begin arming Kurdish forces directly, using the CIA as a broker. Forty U.S. Special Forces advisers are now present in Irbil, are now working to facilitate the delivery of AK-47 rifles, military equipment that the U.S. Department of Defense does not use, to Peshmerga fighters. U.S. officials, after requesting anonymity, stated that the U.S. would not be providing any heavy weaponry to the Peshmerga, which are not controlled by the military leadership in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, including helicopters, missles, artillery, or any armored vehicles. With Islamic State forces now having control over many M1-A1 Abrams tanks, the most sophisticated tank in the world, some military experts question what value AK-47 rifles could have against a U.S. tank. "The only way to confront this threat is to arm Iraqi security forces and Kurdish forces, and yet we're doing nothing to support either one of those", said retired Gen. Michael Barbero, former head of training for Iraqi forces. Congressional representative Adam Schiff added, "If Baghdad isn't supplying the Kurds with the weapons that they need, we should provide them directly to the Kurds". Schiff, a California Democrat, presently serves on the House Intelligence Committee.
On Saturday, President Obama made clear that the United States has a vested interest in what is presently happening within the borders of the Iraqi state. "The United States and the Iraqi government have stepped up our military assistance to Kurdish forces as they wage their fight", while declining to elaborate specifically what types of military aid that he was prepared to offer to the Kurds. While it is not possible to confirm that the CIA has begun arming Kurdish fighters, what is notable is that the official stance of the U.S. government has not changed. Even though the Iraqi Kurdistan spokesman to the U.S. has said that Washington has promised an assurance of providing arms to the Peshmerga, unnamed sources within the Pentagon continue to claim that Washington's stance on arming the Kurds has not changed, and insist that the U.S. will "only sell weapons to Baghdad."
As long as Maliki is unwilling to give up his position voluntarily, the appearance on the ground in Baghdad is that Maliki is preparing for a very long fight; much to the dismay of some in the Iraqi military. So far, Maliki has demonstrated no intention to step aside willingly, which many in Europe are reading as a sign that the Iraq government continues to be at a stalemate, when it comes to defining who is in control, and who is going to be leading Iraq for the foreseeable future.
What is a certainty is that Maliki has lost most of the goodwill extended to him by Sunnis in the runup to his election as P.M. for a second term. As cooperation between Sunni and Shia politicians has ground to a halt, Islamic State fighters exploited the power vacuum, and used the ongoing distrust to open a new front in their war against the Shia-controlled governments in both Syria and Iraq. Presently, the Islamic State is able to move both equipment and fighters back and forth between Syria and Iraq at will. Meanwhile, Peshmerga forces are celebrating Washington's decision to finally assist them in their resistance against the terrorist group formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
With Maliki losing his grip on power, Washington has cautioned that Iraq's military must not take sides in the ongoing parliamentary maneuvering. Even though Maliki has shown no willingness to go away quietly, whatever allies that he had in the parliament have quickly evaporated into thin air, with a majority of members of the parliament ready for a new direction for the country. It is too early to tell if Abadi is willing to negotiate a greater share of Iraq's oil wealth with both Sunnis and Kurds, but without a greater willingness on the part of Shia leaders in Baghdad to share power, there is little question that such divisiveness can only help the Islamic State forces.